Columns » Warwick Sabin

Left behind

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It was only a matter of time before poor people in this country got it, but good. Back during the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore tried to talk about issues relating to the growing disparity between the rich and poor, George W. Bush accused him of waging “class warfare.” That effectively took the subject off the table. Bush tried a similar tactic last week, when he pre-emptively said some people would try to “politicize” the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He must have meant to say “criticize,” because already there was tremendous national outrage about the slow federal response to the disaster, which led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people. “Politicizing” would be staging an elaborate photo-op on an aircraft carrier and declaring “mission accomplished” for a military action falsely justified and not actually finished. It also includes selling a Social Security reform plan through official “town hall meetings” that only political supporters can attend. The word also covers giving misleading names to policies, such as the “Healthy Forests Initiative,” which actually removes existing protections of the environment. It is impossible to analyze the heartbreaking results of the hurricane without separating it from the ongoing assault on basic services and assistance for the poor in America. Even before Bush took office, the process had started. President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill in 1996 to shore up his re-election chances under pressure from the growing conservative movement. Clinton also deregulated several industries, rolling back some restrictions (like those on financial services consolidation) that were put in place during the New Deal. His decision to remove federal regulations on utilities led directly to the Enron fiasco in California, when poor people suffered disproportionately from high electricity rates. Still, Bush made things worse. He governs by the philosophy that government should do as little as possible. So first he called for enormous tax cuts — which especially benefited the wealthiest Americans — to remove a significant source of federal income. Then he went after entitlements. His Social Security reform package would eventually remove the guaranteed pension benefits, effectively killing the program. He also proposed catastrophic cuts to Medicaid, through which most poor people obtain basic health care. It’s an ideological thing, and it explains why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also suffered debilitating budget cuts during Bush’s tenure in the White House. Helping people during a natural disaster is not seen as an essential function of the national government under Bush’s rubric. He thinks people ought to figure out how to survive on their own. Which leads us to the situation in New Orleans and other areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The initial instructions to residents in the soon-to-be-afflicted areas were: Run for your lives. If you had the means to leave and could anticipate being able to afford a hotel room or other shelter, you would be fine. Otherwise, you were out of luck. Like Bush’s governing philosophy, the operative ethic was Every Man for Himself. Even worse, it took days to marshal the resources to get food and water to, and eventually extricate, those who were stranded, thereby causing most of the death and injury. As a nation we could be presented no clearer picture of the consequences of neglecting the poor. It is like a Biblical allegory, so stark in its dramatic portrayal of who suffers and why. There is less drama in the abstract discussions of Social Security and Medicaid reform, but the results would be no less catastrophic. Without an income in old age, many people would go hungry and homeless, just as people did after the hurricane. Without access to basic health care, many people would simply die. (“The death rate in any given year for someone without health insurance is 25 percent higher than for someone with insurance,” according to a recent article in The New Yorker magazine.) In this light, Hurricane Katrina can be a wake-up call for Americans who have been complacent in the face of the massive redefinition of our nation’s values. We should ask ourselves: Do we really want to be the kind of society that turns its back on the neediest among us? Unless we stand up for what we believe, there will be more apocalyptic scenes to come.

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