Our initial response to the victims of hurricane Katrina was a test of our national character, a test we largely failed. Since then, government agencies and especially non-governmental agencies and groups and single individuals have distinguished themselves by acts of genuine compassion and timely help to dislocated families. But there is much, much yet to do.
Our long term commitment to the rebuilding of the ravaged Gulf coast and to the restoration of livable communities in that same region will also test our national character. Katrina exposed the nightmares within the American dream. Katrina revealed the huge disparities that exist among us with regard to wealth and opportunity and safety and access to health care. What we saw we could not deny … but we are capable of forgetting what we saw.
In a Washington Post column released today E. J. Dionne writes:
It has long been said that Americans have short attention spans, but this is ridiculous: Our bold, urgent, far-reaching, post-Katrina war on poverty lasted maybe a month.
Credit for our ability to reach rapid closure on the poverty issue goes first to a group of congressional conservatives who seized the post-Katrina initiative before advocates of poverty reduction could get their plans off the ground.
As soon as President Bush announced his first spending package for reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Republican Study Committee and other conservatives switched the subject from poverty reduction to how Katrina reconstruction plans might increase the deficit that their own tax-cutting policies helped create.
Unwilling to freeze any of the tax cuts, these conservatives proposed cutting other spending to offset Katrina costs. The headlines focused on the seemingly easy calls on pork-barrel spending. But some of their biggest cuts were in health care programs, including Medicaid, and other spending for the poor …
I was naive enough to hope that after Katrina the left and the right might have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poorest among us. I guess we’ve moved on. You can lay a lot of the blame for this indifference on conservatives. But it will be a default on the part of liberals if the poor disappear again from public view without a fight.
I worry that the focus will be on rebuilding cities instead of on rebuilding lives, that we will make this an opportunity to fashion a new New Orleans, a new Gulf coast, and forget about the problems and the people of the old one.
We cannot forget what we saw. We cannot just “move on” and fail to deal with the social and moral and political liabilities that so magnified Katrina’s capacity to cause human suffering. We must not fail this test of our national character.