Katrina Re-examined: Roots of Poverty

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, leaving behind countless news stories about the work done so far and the work yet left to do. As the Superdome in New Orleans reopens, purportedly lifting the spirits of the poorest of New Orleans’ denizens, an earnest discussion is taking place amongst Washington thinkers concerning the root causes of poverty.

A group of speakers addressing this issue directly at the Independent Women’s Forum on Tuesday rejected the common wisdom that the poverty seen in New Orleans was a result of ever-present racism and a lack of government support. Indeed, the overriding solution suggested was less government intervention.

False Common Wisdom

In order to formulate answers for the problems, one must re-examine what sort of poverty is being discussed. Wolf Blitzer’s ad-lib analysis that the Katrina refugees were, “so poor and so black,” was echoed en masse, if less frankly, in political debates nationwide. The idea was simple: the lingering effects of America’s racist history had led to a permanent black lower class that was revealed in the aftermath of the storm. President Bush himself made this connection, along with hordes of cultural observers.

In order to address entrenched poverty, panel member Charles Murray, author of “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State,” first dispelled this notion. Murray, seeing a causal link between the rise in illegitimate children and a growth in what he calls the underclass, pointed to discouraging indicators for both whites and blacks. “As out of wedlock birth rates rise,” said Murray, “so too does criminality and the number of young males abandoning the search for employment.”  A societal problem, the underclass can’t be helped by conventional government assistance.

Star Parker, a former welfare recipient who is herself African-American, went even further, assigning culpability to the social welfare state for widespread black poverty as seen in New Orleans. “Low-income housing programs over these last 40 years [have been] consistent failures,” said Parker. “The problem is government interference.”  Fellow panelist John McWhorter, author of “Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America,” agreed in his August 2006 column, stating that Great Society programs constituted a “bureaucracy that sapped initiative and responsibility from people who deserved better.”

Not-So-Great Society

The nationwide results of this social welfare agenda speak for themselves and can certainly be applied to New Orleans. After welfare regulations were relaxed during the Great Society era, the rolls skyrocketed as a percentage of the population, from less than 2% to around 5% in the 1970s, 1980s, and the first half of the 1990s.

The percentage of children born out of wedlock has also surged in both white and black communities. According to Murray, illegitimate births across all ethnic groups, as a percentage of the population, have risen from 4% in the 1950s to more than 35% today.

If the largest problem in New Orleans and other poor communities is an overabundance of government assistance, as opposed to institutionalized racism, then the solution presents itself fairly quickly. Instead of government appropriations for all sorts of wasteful programs, the panelists proposed tax credits for charitable actions, specifically faith-based groups, school vouchers, and economic freedom so that businesses can create jobs more easily.

Failed Policies

The areas hardest hit by Katrina are areas in which Great Society-style programs have failed for decades. There is no reason to think, intimated the panel, that an increase in and acceleration of failed policies will yield a successful outcome. Contrary to popular opinion and mainstream media coverage, Katrina exposed not institutionalized racism, but rather the spectacular failure of the social welfare state.