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Oakland Tribune Article - Hurricane Exposed Two Americas

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Barbara In The News

Oakland Tribune
September 17, 2005

Hurricane exposed two Americas

By Barbara Lee

The devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina has torn down the curtain, and exposed the dirty secret that divides our nation like an open wound.

If anyone ever doubted that there were two Americas, hurricane Katrina and our government’s shameful response to it have made the division clear for all to see.

Sixty seven percent of the population of New Orleans was black. Nearly 30 percent were living below the poverty line. Twenty one percent of the households earned less than $10,000 a year. Eighty four percent of the people living in poverty in New Orleans were black.

The brutal fact is that the majority of people who died in this tragedy were poor, primarily African Americans. Many were old and disabled.

When the disaster came, people who had cash in the bank and a car in the garage escaped, and those who did not were shamefully left to fend for themselves.

The incompetence and indifference demonstrated by the administration in responding to this tragedy was shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Does anyone doubt that if this sort of devastation had taken place in the communities where the small percentage of people who are benefiting from the Bush administration’s tax cuts live, the response would have been swift and efficient?

This indifference to the most vulnerable among us is part and parcel of a systemic problem that seeks to make a large sector of our population invisible.

Many people, viewing the human tragedy left in Katrina’s wake, thought they were witnessing a tragedy in Somalia, Haiti or Sudan. Some even came to refer to the survivors as “refugees,” as if the images were too foreign for them to recognize them as Americans. They thought, this does not look like the America that I know.

For some of us, however, this is an America we know too well, an America that is too often swept under the rug by lawmakers and the media.

The truth is, there are almost 36 million Americans living in poverty in the United States today. There are more than 15 million living in extreme poverty.

The connection between poverty and race cannot be ignored. In 2003, while 8.2 percent of whites lived in poverty, the number was 22.5 was for Latinos and 24.4 percent for African Americans.

Since President Bush took office, the number of poor people in America has grown by 17 percent.

This is the real state of the so-called “ownership society.” And it is unacceptable.

The problem with the Bush administration’s response to Katrina was not simply the failure to react to the hurricane in a coherent or competent manner, it was the tragic failure to acknowledge the massive structural crisis that poverty and inequality pose for our nation and the stubborn refusal to conceive of any constructive role for our government in addressing it.

I call on President Bush to demonstrate that he is not indifferent to the least among us. I have introduced legislation, asking President Bush to present his plan to eradicate poverty in this nation.

America has been shocked by the images that have exposed this terrible divide in our nation. It is up to us now to decide whether our government has a responsibility to help improve the lives of the millions of Americans who are living in poverty, or whether we will again abandon them to the dirty water to fend for themselves.

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