Now that the New Orleans floodwaters are receding and George W. Bush is
making photo-op stops on the Gulf Coast a routine part of his publicity-travel
schedule, we’re about to enter the next, predictable phase in the national Katrina
narrative. It’s what you might call the Schindler’s List phase.
The righteous indignation and outrage of network anchors and reporters are being replaced by cheery stories of rebuilding and recovery. Time for National Uplift. Some good old self-indulgent self-congratulation. Just like Spielberg’s Holocaust pic, we can emerge from the most horrific of catastrophes with a happy ending.
But make no mistake: Rescuing the impoverished victims of Katrina is not the same as redeeming them, or restoring them. Indeed, restoring them to what, precisely? To the second-tier livelihoods they were living before the hurricane hit?
Most poor people are poor because their lives have already been stunted by some previous catastrophe: an aftershock of slavery; dysfunctional parents, if any; ignorance; chronic illness; some really bad luck. Living through yet another disaster — with or without a proper response from FEMA and notwithstanding the unhinged statements of Babs Bush — hardly seems a recipe for social advancement.
The poor keep their noses above water by jerry-rigging and improvising on a daily, if not hourly, basis. All of those pieced-together and fragile make-dos that sustain life when you don’t have a job, don’t have a doctor, don’t have a baby sitter, don’t have the rent payment, and mostly don’t have money, have been obliterated by the storm.
The Other America, of course, could use a Marshall Plan. Not only is that unthinkable in the current political culture, but those displaced by Katrina may be in for some extra suffering.
Thanks to the Congressional Republicans (and some dozens of Democrats as well), the new bankruptcy bill comes into effect next month — just in time to batter those dispossessed by Katrina. The new law demands extra documentation — including pay stubs and tax returns — from those seeking relief. And it imposes a means test that looks at the filer’s average income over the past six months, regardless of the reason for the bankruptcy.
In simpler language, for those who have had their jobs washed away by Katrina and now have no income, the means test averages their income for the previous half year — during which they were earning money — thereby endangering their eligibility.
Then there's the criminal-justice system. Buildings full of evidence have
been washed away. That makes not only prosecution more difficult but also exonerations.
Unduly convicted prisoners awaiting DNA-based reversals must now abandon hope.
Other prisoners in Louisiana’s notorious facilities — like Angola — whose release
dates are coming up risk remaining behind bars because of lost paperwork. The
already under-funded public-defender network in Louisiana risks total collapse,
as it is dependent on revenue from New Orleans traffic violators. That would leave
the indigent and the poor without criminal defense.
There’s also the indelicate matter of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of undocumented workers from the Gulf Coast’s casinos, restaurants and other service-related establishments. Their plight has become unmentionable. And they qualify for no federal assistance. These are the ultimate disposable people.
The way any rational society would approach the Katrina recovery plan is to exploit its possibilities for regional economic development. What better moment for a vast public-works program along the Gulf, employing tens of thousands of the victims (and more) at a livable wage? Pay people $15 an hour to rebuild their communities and new, affordable homes. Maybe even rebuild something other than the garish coastline casinos that did little except illuminate the social chasm that cleaved Gulf society.
The Bush administration, of course, has taken the opposite track, quickly opening the candy store for its cronies in the private corporate sector. Already, two major clients of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh — Dubya’s former campaign manager and former FEMA director — have been doled out government reconstruction contracts. Some of the pork has been tossed to the Shaw Group Inc. Another slab has been served to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root. The Bechtel Corporation, meanwhile, was awarded a no-bid contract by FEMA to provide emergency housing for Katrina refugees — who are merely the latest revenue source for Bush’s buddies and contributors.
Worse, almost completely under the media radar last week, Bush quietly decreed suspension of the 70-year-old Davis-Bacon Act. Now the crony contractors are officially exempt from paying the “prevailing industry wage” in reconstruction projects. Any of Katrina’s outcasts who score a recovery job can now more or less be guaranteed only poverty-level wages; a stark reminder of the permanence of their societal rank. Not even the stupendous force of a Category Four catastrophe, it seems, is might enough to level some of our more imposing walls of indifference and injustice.