Bill Clinton on Government's Role in Hurricane Relief

Former President Bill Clinton has been in New Orleans, lending a hand in the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts there. Clinton is one of two former presidents raising private donations for the recovery.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans.

Those who want to improve the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina got a reminder how hard it will be just to get back to normal. Officials said yesterday that New Orleans should tear down both of its public hospitals. News of the damage to those buildings is the latest blow to a city that provided poor public services even before the flood. One person who says he's trying to figure out how to improve this region is Bill Clinton. He's one of two former presidents raising private donations for recovery. As he toured the Gulf Coast yesterday, he stopped in a restaurant to talk about the government's role. Clinton said he wants the government to help the working poor who were caught in the storm.

Former President BILL CLINTON: Congress has appropriated an enormous amount of money. Their role ought to be to get them into decent living conditions, decent shelter, access to the necessities of life.

INSKEEP: What about in the longer term?

Mr. CLINTON: And over the long run, I think that the obligations are to try to create the conditions in which there will be more opportunity here in this area. I think, you know, there are a lot of ideas being batted around here, but we know essentially what works to reduce poverty among working people. We know what strategies work and I'd like to see them implemented down here. I think there are--we could have better schools, we could have better economic environment, we could have more access to education and training and job creation here. We could create whole new sectors of the economy in south Louisiana, around restoring the environment and wetlands, around building an alternative energy future. We could--there's lots of things we could do here.

INSKEEP: You're the president who said the era of big government is over. Louisiana's congressional delegation is now asking for $250 billion over the next number of years for assistance here. Does this disaster mean the era of big government is back?

Mr. CLINTON: No. I think that, you know, that quote has often been used by people for their own circumstances. What I said I still believe. We don't have the kind of--the need for some of the same big government bureaucracies we used to have; doesn't mean we don't need government to create pools of money in emergencies that will provide the necessary investment capital to help people work their way out of a disaster. I think the government does have responsibility to take care of people and their basic human needs. I feel very strongly about it.

INSKEEP: Is it worth borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars?

Mr. CLINTON: Yeah, and I must say, I'm not very sympathetic with people who say, `Well, we can't pay for Katrina with borrowed money.' I mean, this is the least damaging borrowing we have done. First of all, this Katrina borrowing is essentially one-time money. When you have a natural disaster and you borrow money to build an area back, it's not an ongoing expense. Secondly, a lot of this investment money will help the area get back on its feet, will generate economic growth and in return, generate tax revenues. Katrina is not a permanent addition to the debt. The tax cuts are permanent additions to the deficits. Iraq and Afghanistan and massive increased permanent defense spendings are permanent additions.

INSKEEP: Mayor Ray Nagin has said this week that he expects that only about 180,000 to 200,000 of New Orleans residents will come back in the near future, less than half the city. The rest will be scattered elsewhere. Many of the people who are scattered will be poor. Some of them are reporting that they're finding better conditions than they had in New Orleans. Is it possible...

Mr. CLINTON: ...more better.

INSKEEP: ...that spreading people out proved to be an anti-poverty program even though it's what nobody wanted?

Mr. CLINTON: Oh, absolutely it's possible. As a matter of fact, it's one of the things that New Orleans should consider in rebuilding itself. They could have a city of a half million here again, but there ought to be an attempt to have more economic integration in the neighborhoods and economic integration in the schools. And the fact that there's--he just told the factual truth on the hundred and eighty tho--there's only so many people who can be accommodated back in here in the near term. I think, however, if New Orleans returns to the same volume of fishing, the same port activity, the same volume of tourism activity it had before, it's--will--urban area will require about the same population it did before. I do think that anybody who wants to come home can come home. But I think we ought to think about the living, the working and the education patterns in a way that might bring the city closer together, and I think there are lots of things we could do.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

Mr. CLINTON: Thank you.

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