A New Start for Katrina's Victims

Three cheers for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Democratic party leader Donna Brazille, who are rising above politics to help the president in attempts to rebuild the Gulfport region of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Both Obama and Brazille have made dramatic statements that reflect a common commitment for racial reconciliation and for waging war on poverty to restore hope to people and families in Biloxi, New Orleans and other cities and communities in the hurricane-ravaged region.

In the same spirit, former Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros, Urban League President Marc Morial and I (among others) are helping lead a home-building effort to raise money to bring Habitat for Humanity into the relief and reconstruction campaign. We’ve enlisted the support of Warner Bros. Records, NBC, and Tim Blixseth, a lumber and resort entrepreneur, to raise money and challenge others to get involved in helping low-income families to get their shot at a dream of ownership.

I was thrilled to hear President Bush refer to Habitat as integral to his urban homesteading initiative. Our hope is that mayors and governors in the region will donate vacant properties where Habitat for Humanity volunteers can build homes that will house families, help communities expand the tax base and stabilize neighborhoods.

Too many Democrats blame the president as indifferent to the plight of the poor and the suffering in the region. Conversely, Republicans are accusing the president of reckless spending and allowing the federal government to grow in this crisis. Imagine what a dispossessed low-income family living in Houston’s Astrodome might think of Republican conservatives who talk about not spending the money on necessary emergency relief, restoration and rebuilding the region. Abraham Lincoln faced the same criticism in 1862 when he passed the Homestead Act and the Republicans who voted against it said the act would cost money. Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish politics.

Most of those who criticize the president’s spending in this crisis are the same who recently voted for the pork-laden highway bill and the no-energy energy bill. This is the hypocrisy W.F. Buckley defined as "the tribute that vice pays to virtue."

When the president alluded to the history of racial discrimination that for so long denied equality of opportunity and economic justice to people of color, he showed an understanding of the issue and compassion for people all too often neglected by the party of Lincoln in the past. There are appalling cases of historical racial discrimination in education, housing and employment that have contributed to the conditions we all saw on television in that tragic and historic catastrophe.

That’s why the president said he wants to combat poverty through expanding entrepreneurship generally and minority enterprise in particular. He knows that an opportunity (or enterprise) zone for the whole region will attract capital and encourage investment in job-creating businesses in the "green-lined" area of Gulfport.

Further attacks on the president are coming for not raising taxes, and it is time for Republicans and thoughtful Democrats in Congress to come to his defense. They need to point out that even at lower tax rates enacted under Bush tax revenues have grown more than 16 1/2 percent for two straight years. And the capital gains tax is not a tax on the rich, it’s a tax on the poor who want to get rich.

The deficit, while numerically large, is but 3 1/2 percent of our $11.9 trillion gross domestic product, which people conveniently ignore when talking about deficits. Growth at 3.5 percent to 4 percent is essential to keeping our revenues sufficient to meet this challenge, and this is no time for the Federal Reserve Board to raise interest rates and slow down the economy.

Instead of raising taxes, Congress should provide more juice to the opportunity zone by adding an exemption to capital gains taxes for people and businesses who invest in job-creating enterprises for people in the green-lined zone. As the president said, the people who suffered the most dislocation and distress must participate fully in the rebuilding and the job opportunities that will result from these policy prescriptions.

African-American leaders like Morial, Bruce Gordon of NAACP, Earl Graves of Black Enterprise Magazine and Andy Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, have all said access to capital is one of the most important social and economic goals for minority business development and job creation. Let’s democratize capitalism as a tool to wage war on poverty, despair and racial discrimination.