Hurricane Brings Plight of Poor into Focus

Commentator Judy Muller says Americans and their elected officials have ignored the problems of the poor in recent years. But now they're confronted with the overwhelming number of poor residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now for two views of Katrina and its aftermath. On Sunday, The Times-Picayune ran an editorial saying that every top official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired because of their response to Hurricane Katrina. We'll hear a defense of the federal relief effort in a moment. First, commentator Judy Muller says Katrina has reminded her that some Americans are still less equal than others.

JUDY MULLER:

When President Bush first landed in the hurricane zone Friday, he offered this upbeat assessment: `The good news is, and it's hard for some to see it now, that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubble of Trent Lott's house--he's lost his entire house--there's going to be a fantastic house. And,' he added, `I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch.'

What a relief. All those Americans who might have been agonizing over this issue, wondering, `How about Trent Lott? Will he ever rebuild?'--well, they can rest easy now. As for all those Americans who have been agonizing over the images of poor people, mostly poor black people, who never had their own homes to begin with and who couldn't even afford the bus fare to get their families out of town before disaster struck, well, the news isn't quite so rosy.

In fact, the one question people keep asking, over and over, is: `I can't believe this is the United States of America! How can this be happening here?' And the answer isn't actually that complicated. It's happening here because the nation's poor are so often ignored--by the government, by the media, by wealthier Americans--until a disaster of major proportions washes those horrific images up on our collective doorstep.

Conventional wisdom says natural disasters like hurricanes don't discriminate, but society does discriminate. And so when natural disasters do hit, if you live in the poor part of town, the infrastructure will be shaky; the cost of transportation, good housing and medical care prohibitive. The result is what we've all been watching: images that have forced us to wonder what we would do, faced with no food or water for our children. Would we steal from stores to survive?

It's not a question middle-class Americans usually ask themselves. Like it or not, the haves are being confronted with the plight of the have-nots. In the past, middle-class Americans didn't seem to care very much. Perhaps if they had, politicians would have paid more attention, the media would have sent a few more reporters to look into those dreadful conditions and maybe, just maybe, something might have changed.

Instead, we waited for catastrophe to shove us into empathy, and now we are enraged to learn that the government had plenty of warning about those levees but chose not to spend the big bucks that could have saved so many lives; enraged to learn that people sat is misery, surrounded by the dead and dying, for days before anyone in authority came to help them.

This newfound empathy might very well dissipate as things get back to normal, and that would be a shame--a national shame. Politicians would once again ignore the issue of poverty. The news media would once again ignore stories about poverty in the name of attracting the `right demographic.' Before disaster strikes again--and it will--we need to redefine the right demographic. We need to broaden our view. Trent Lott's porch just isn't going to be big enough.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Judy Muller is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

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