Seven Lessons for Post-Katrina Compassion

Here are seven suggestions I’m making to political leaders who want to offer long-term, post-Katrina help in a compassionate conservative way:

First, listen to and learn from the real poverty experts, those who have fought their way out of it.

Here’s one of my favorites Internet offers of personal help to needy evacuees: "I am a black single mom and can house another black single mom and one to two children under 2 for free for three months. … I have been on welfare and put myself through school. In no way have I been through what you have been through, but I can try to help you navigate confusing systems. Just be respectful of the resources that I can provide. … No smoking, no drugs, no profanity. … Also, limited or no TV. … I can help you make it!!!"

Second, tweak tax rules to make it financially possible for that black single mom, as well as middle-class individuals, to help evacuees for a year or even more.

Local officials in the 18th century sometimes paid out-of-pocket costs of citizens who housed or fed victims of emergencies. They saw such payments not as compromising the volunteer spirit, but as allowing poor along with rich families to offer help. We can do the same by providing tax credits (applicable to Social Security as well as income taxes) to all individuals who take evacuees into their homes for extended periods. Why should we have tax deductions for financial contributions but no tax recognition of the far greater commitment that sharing a home represents?

Third, do not discriminate in any way against groups that see the importance of offering spiritual as well as material help. As long as evacuees have alternatives, government officials should not put any pressure on church groups to douse their evangelistic fires. Both givers and receivers of help should have freedom of speech concerning religious beliefs. That’s especially important for maintaining the flow of volunteers: Those who care about both body and soul will not be content with gag rules that do not allow conversation about God.

Fourth, provide student evacuees with vouchers so they can attend any schools in their new communities, whether governmental, private or church-based.

Next year, instead of pouring money into the failed New Orleans school system, give returning students similar vouchers. Social services as well should be voucherized whenever possible, with no discrimination against religious groups allowed. Instead of buying 300,000 mobile homes and setting up massive trailer camps — yes, that’s the new FEMA plan — use rental vouchers to move people into vacant homes.

Fifth, create the "Gulf Opportunity Zone" (encompassing the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama disaster area) that President Bush has called for, and within it provide tax relief for small businesses as well as other spurs to entrepreneurship. Accompany that with the White House’s "Urban Homesteading Act," which would give low-income citizens free building sites on land the federal government currently owns but does not need. The idea is to increase home ownership, often with help from charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

Sixth, honor compassionate "first responders" by telling the story of not only what went wrong, but what went right. Journalist (and former firefighter) Lou Dolinar, noting a New Orleans death toll much lower than its mayor predicted, reports that National Guard helicopter crews, volunteers with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who went out in their boats, and other volunteers saved 25,000 to 50,000 people in a response that "was immediate and massive. … Big government didn’t work. Odds and ends of little government did."

Seventh, thank God for His mercy. With everything that can go wrong in the world, with hurricanes each year filling most of the letters of the alphabet, it’s worth noting that only a few become infamous. Why should we assume good weather and good health? Why not be thankful for days of clear skies or gentle rains?