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New Orleans: Welfare state that failed the poor
[B]LBJ's Other Quagmire: Long before Katrina, the welfare state failed New Orleans's poor.
BY BRENDAN MINITER
Tuesday, September 13, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT [/B]
"What the American people have seen in this incredible disparity in which those people who had cars and money got out, and those people who were impoverished died."
The above comment about Hurricane Katrina comes to us from Ted Kennedy, who went on to say that the question for Chief Justice-designate John Roberts is whether he stands for "a fairer, more just nation" or will use "narrow, stingy interpretations of the law to frustrate progress." But why stop there? Sen. Kennedy is onto something and, indeed, the question isn't only for Judge Roberts. It's also one for the national debate now under way in the wake of the most devastating hurricane to hit the U.S. in decades.
That debate has so far largely focused on race and class to explain why tens of thousands of poor people were left behind to fend for themselves in a flooding city.
Liberals are now blaming small-government conservatism for cutting "antipoverty" programs. That's a tune a surprising number of people are starting to hum, from NAACP chairman Julian Bond to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who speculated recently that the storm will probably spark a new progressive movement in America. The lyrics are still being written, but the refrain for this ditty is a familiar one: Small government conservatives did it to us again.
There is, however, another explanation: The welfare state failed the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward and other flooded New Orleans neighborhoods long before the levees gave way. This gets us back to the question Sen. Kennedy wants Judge Roberts to answer about whether to adopt a narrow view that prevents real progress from taking place. And it also explains the role Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco--both Democrats--played in leaving mostly poor, minority citizens in a city that was clearly descending into chaos.
Anyone who has taken a non-drinking-binge tour of New Orleans, venturing outside the French Quarter and Garden District, might have noticed that New Orleans was a failing city. Tourism kept it, well, afloat, but large swaths of the city were mired in poverty for decades. One out of four New Orleans residents was living below the poverty line, and tens of thousands of people were living in public housing. These are the people who were left behind in the flood and who have long been left behind by failing schools, lack of economic opportunity, and crime well above the national average.
The Lower Ninth Ward was one section particularly hard it by the blight of poverty. Another hit hard by both poverty and then the flood was the Sixth Ward, home of the infamous Lafitte housing project. Recently the murder of a teenager there sparked a high school class to write short, locally published books about Lafitte's horrible living conditions. One author and a Lafitte resident, Ashley Nelson, told NPR on Friday that her friends and relatives still hadn't been able to escape their flooded neighborhood.
That's not to say there was a lack of funding or even a lack of interest in poverty "elimination" programs. For decades city, state and federal officials poured good money after bad into public housing and other programs. In the 1940s the Housing Authority of New Orleans built several public housing apartment buildings near the French Quarter. As the decades passed more money and more programs followed. In 1993 the Clinton administration recognized that packing public housing units into a small space didn't eliminate poverty, but it did create ghettoes that were not well served by public transportation or emergency services.
To solve the problem the Clinton administration launched the "Hope VI" housing program which called for partnerships with private developers to build "mixed income" housing. In 2001 one of the vintage 1940s public housing buildings--the St. Thomas complex--was torn down and replaced by a private development called River Gardens. It would be interesting to know how many River Gardens residents got out of the city ahead of the flood waters compared with those who lived in the remaining public housing units nearby.
We still only have anecdotal evidence to go on, and we can be hopeful as the death toll remains far below the thousands originally predicted. But it's reasonable to surmise that Sen. Kennedy is correct about those who wanted to leave: Most people who could arrange for their own transportation got out of harm's way; those who depended on the government (and public transportation) were left for days to the mercy of armed thugs at the Superdome and Convention Center. It was an extreme example of what the welfare state has done to the poor for decades: use the promise of food, shelter and other necessities to lure most of the poor to a few central points and then leave them stranded and nearly helpless.
This isn't a failure of President Bush's compassionate conservatism. Nor is it evidence that Ronald Reagan's philosophy of smaller government is fatally flawed. If LBJ had won his war on poverty, Ninth Ward residents would have had the means to drive themselves out of New Orleans. Instead, after decades and billions of tax dollars have been poured into big government programs, one out of four people in the Big Easy were still poor. That is an indictment of the welfare state and all its antipoverty programs.
It is time to break free of the narrow thinking that has prevented progress for decades. It's time to rethink how we, as a society, combat poverty. Are we going to try another big-government program and expect better results this time? Or are we now going to realize that ownership is the most likely path to the middle class? School vouchers can help poor parents take ownership of their children's education and finally break the grip teachers unions have on the public schools. Health savings accounts and private accounts for Medicaid and Social Security will give those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder the skills as well as the assets necessary to climb higher. In late August the levees broke in New Orleans. But the welfare state had left the poor stuck in the mud long before that.
OF course he doesn't even touch on the psychological effects of entitlement programs, which has done nothing but turn those who have been recipients for generations at a time into addicts dependent on government handouts and have no idea how to become self-sufficient or self-reliant....like those in liberally run New Orleans....