Saturday, December 23, 2006

How could George W. Bush have blown the aftermath of Katrina? It's not as if he lacks confidence in the power of his office
Alter: Feds Still Blind to Region's Poverty
How could George W. Bush have blown the aftermath of Katrina? It's not as if he lacks confidence in the power of his office.
By Jonathan Alter

Sept. 4, 2006 issue - 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.

"This is the greatest lost opportunity I've ever seen in public life," Sen. John Kerry told me last week. "The Jackson Square speech ought to stand as one of the all-time monuments to hollow rhetoric and broken promises." Kerry depicted the response during the last year as a slow-motion Superdome II, where the federal government once more walked right past people in distress.

If the president was MIA, Congress hasn't been much better.

Consider the estate tax and the minimum wage. The House in June passed a steep reduction of the estate tax (so as to apply only to couples leaving more than $10 million to their heirs) that would cost the Treasury three quarters of a trillion dollars over the next decade. Last time I checked, that was real money. Senate Republicans tried to push it through by linking the bill to an increase in the minimum wage, which has not been raised in nine years. The idea was to get credit for giving crumbs to the working poor—but only if the superrich receive hundreds of billions of dollars. Fortunately, the bill failed. Unfortunately, other tax cuts for the wealthy keep moving through the system, ballooning the deficit and drying up money for everything else. Meanwhile, the GOP wants to make welfare reform (now 10 years old) more punitive, which will increase suffering.

There are a couple of bright spots. Congress passed $1 billion to help the poor avoid freezing in the winter. And a bipartisan coalition added $7 billion this year in appropriations for health, education and other social programs. As the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law points out in a midterm congressional scorecard, this victory reflected widespread concern that the budget had shortchanged the poor.

But that was no thanks to the president. After all the heat he took last year, how could Bush have blown the aftermath of Katrina? It's not as if he lacks confidence in the power of his office. He believes he can fix Iraq and transform the Middle East. He aspires to spread democracy to the far corners of the globe. But the fate of an American city and millions of his impoverished countrymen are apparently beyond his control, or perhaps just his interest