After the flood

In the aftermath of Katrina, can we finally begin the era of communal responsibility?

IN THE MURKY, OIL-SOILED WAKE OF HURRICANE KATRINA, as the bodies of hundreds of our fellow citizens were recovered from the flooded city of New Orleans, American politicians and media were assigning blame instead of assessing failure. It was a depressing, embarrassing, shameful spectacle.

With the world’s biggest economy at its back and most capable military at its disposal, when the water came down and the walls caved in, the world’s lone superpower performed little better than the humblest of developing nations, responding to an epic natural disaster with lethal lethargy and bureaucratic blundering that generated a man-made disaster all its own.

New Orleans’ tragedy exposed more than the shocking state of emergency readiness in the United States and more than the nation’s rotting, ill-tended infrastructure, it exposed to an astonished world the depth of the social, racial, and economic divisions just beneath the national surface. The veneer of civilization is thin indeed, but in the U.S. it has been sanded down to a fine degree. Katrina ripped that veneer completely away. Unleashing the looters, gougers, and carpetbaggers, it also ripped apart the drab curtain hiding the other America from itself.

New Orleans’ polluted waters reflect the logical outcome of decades of the psychic retooling of the problem of poverty and how to respond to it. Armed with the nuance-squashing mantra of “personal responsibility,” America’s political elite pulled off a supremely elegant ethical sleight of hand—elevating a policy of radical indifference and self-interest to a civic virtue, even a Christian duty. Now we stand on the edge of a new century without a clear vision of a common good, engaged not in a war on poverty but an ideological war against the poor and a communal responsibility to the poor.

After years of overspending on defense and overindulgence in tax “reform,” we are still strip-mining taxpayer resources that could be devoted to the least among us, to banishing human deprivation and building a nation of real, equal opportunity for all. More than 37 million Americans live below the artfully understated poverty line. The federal minimum wage has not budged from $5.15 in eight years. Unless Katrina inspires a national examination of conscience that alters America’s ideological trajectory, the poor are in for an even bumpier ride. Current federal budget plans call for substantial cuts in antipoverty spending over the coming years.

The sad truth of the matter is that a shockingly high percentage of people in our nation are living so close to the edge that they could not muster the meager resources needed to get out of the path of a hurricane they knew was bearing down on them. Three out of 10 people in New Orleans were left to take “personal responsibility” for themselves and, when they couldn’t do it, to die.

Many will attempt to write off Katrina as a wrenching anomaly, a terrible case history in government incompetence and disarray, but to America’s poor there must be a sickening familiarity to the stench of that dirty water, to the images of people waiting for help that has been promised but that never arrives. Why should Katrina be any different from the ongoing, unnatural disasters of mal-education, subsistence labor, and lack of health care?

Despite our grandiose national self-image, in the U.S. the poor remain at the end of the line, at the bottom of priority lists, and cut out of budgets. “Personal responsibility” makes a nice slogan, but it’s not a stand-in for good public policy. We can pretend that a nation of rugged individuals stand ready to tackle whatever challenges come their way, that this radical independence makes us powerful, but Katrina reminds us that the opposite is true.

We are a community of people who, all rhetoric aside, do depend on each other. We share the hazards and the rewards of our national community life together. That means we are sometimes only as strong as the arm reaching out to save us from the rushing waters and only as weak as a hand up that is never offered.

By Kevin Clarke, senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the November 2005 (Volume 70, Number 11; page 41) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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