One Year Later

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Usually when a regular columnist for one of the major news magazines begins to chew through the restraints of received ideas and government press releases, it is, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Johnson, "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Jonathan Alter's latest column in Newsweek illustrates the point.

A year ago, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, NEWSWEEK published a cover story called "Poverty, Race and Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame." The article suggested that the disaster was prompting a fresh look at "The Other America"—the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line. "It takes a hurricane," I wrote. "It takes the sight of the United States with a big black eye—visible around the world—to help the rest of us begin to see again." I ended on a hopeful note: "What kind of president does George W. Bush want to be? ... If he seizes the moment, he could undertake a midcourse correction that might materially change the lives of millions. Katrina gives Bush an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China opportunity, if he wants it."Some readers told me at the time that this was naive—that the president, if not indifferent to the problems of black people, as the singer Kanye West charged, was not going to do anything significant to help them. At first this seemed too cynical. The week after the article appeared, Bush went to Jackson Square in New Orleans and made televised promises not only for Katrina relief but to address some of the underlying struggles of the poor. He proposed "worker recovery accounts" to help evacuees find work by paying for job training, school and child care; an Urban Homesteading Act that would make empty lots and loans available to the poor to start over, and a Gulf Enterprise Zone to spur business investment in poor areas. Small ideas, perhaps, but good ones.

Well, it turned out that the critics were largely right. Not only has the president done much less than he promised on the financing and logistics of Gulf Coast recovery, he has dropped the ball entirely on using the storm and its aftermath as an opportunity to fight poverty. Worker recovery accounts and urban homesteading never got off the ground, and the new enterprise zone is mostly an opportunity for Southern companies owned by GOP campaign contributors to make some money in New Orleans. The mood in Washington continues to be one of not-so-benign neglect of the problems of the poor.


So while we should applaud Alter for heaving himself up onto his hind legs, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he misses what is possibly the most important point about the not-so-benign neglect: it's not a bug, it's a feature.

"I don't think anybody's getting the Bush strategy," historian Douglas Brinkley, director of Tulane University's Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization and the author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, tells Frank Rich in Rich's Sunday New York Times column.

"The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate — the inaction is the action." As [Brinkley] sees it, the administration, tacitly abetted by New Orleans's opportunistic mayor, Ray Nagin, is encouraging selective inertia, whether in the rebuilding of the levees ("Only Band-Aids have been put on them"), the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward or the restoration of the wetlands. The destination: a smaller city, with a large portion of its former black population permanently dispersed. "Out of the Katrina debacle, Bush is making political gains," Mr. Brinkley says incredulously. "The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state."

One of those who does get it, and has been writing about it regularly, is the blogger Digby, whose most recent post on Katrina's aftermath features not only the above quote from Newsweek, but also some fascinating statistics from The Institute of Southern Studies' Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch. The most unexpected statistic? "Total federal funds dispersed so far to rebuild homes: $0". That sort of neglect doesn't even deserve to be called not-so-benign.


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