For one week last September, the unthinkable happened — America's poor suddenly became all the rage. The shocking and tormenting sight of thousands of poor Blacks fleeing for their lives from Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters jolted the nation and the world.
President George W. Bush, reeling from the battering he took in the media for his initial comatose response to the Katrina victims, scrambled fast and talked tough about assailing poverty.
In a televised speech in New Orleans' famed Jackson Square, Bush told the nation, "All of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well."
The rhetoric about aiding the poor flew hot and heavy. Congressional leaders vowed to budget millions more for the poor. Business leaders vowed to pump more dollars into job and skills training programs. Private charities vowed to launch new fund-raising drives for the poor. Even many hard-bitten, laissez-faire conservatives who reflexively oppose government spending screamed at Bush to do something about poverty.
In a post-Katrina assessment of public opinion on poverty, more Americans agreed that the government should do more to end poverty. Civil rights leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus and anti-poverty groups even dreamed that Katrina guilt would force Americans to engage in a much-needed, much-avoided soul-searching dialogue on poverty.
That was a year ago. The national roar about attacking poverty has fizzled to a whimper. Yet the poor are still as numerous as before, and, thanks to Katrina, even more dispersed nationally. Census figures released weeks before Katrina struck revealed that the number of poor had relentlessly climbed during Bush's White House years.
Since his Jackson Square speech, Bush has mentioned poverty only six times. He made no mention of it in his State of the Union Speech in January, and did not utter a word about poverty in his speech to the NAACP convention in July. Not one of his anti-poverty proposals — which included bigger tax breaks and grants for minority-owned and small businesses, a ramp-up in job training and child care subsidies, boosts in transportation funding and an urban homesteading program — went anywhere.
A minimum wage hike, an increase in funding for public housing and an expansion of job training programs and the earned income tax credit died quick deaths in Congress.
Democratic House and Senate leaders have given no sign that they are willing to fight for the billions that it would take to mount a comprehensive program to combat poverty. The Congressional Black Caucus is the sole group among Democrats that still shows some zeal for waging a fight on poverty. But the caucus is nearly totally isolated and marginalized in Congress and has been stymied in its efforts to pass any effective legislation.
The talk about a fresh assault on poverty was dead in the water from the start. While Katrina momentarily increased empathy for the poor, it didn't fundamentally change public attitudes toward them. A fervent belief in the Protestant ethic of hard work, personal responsibility and self-initiative are deeply ingrained in American attitudes. Success and merit are intimately connected, and one can't be attained without the other. Poverty is regarded as a perplexing, intractable and insoluble malady that government programs can't — or even shouldn't — cure.
In a wide-ranging 2001 study on American attitudes and beliefs about the poor published in the Journal of Social Issues, a team of psychologists found that attitudes toward the poor were significantly more negative than attitudes toward the middle class. Respondents were most likely to blame poor people themselves for their poverty.
The poor are diffuse and amorphous and have only a scattering of anti-poverty-focused activist groups and no full time congressional lobbyists. They can't dump money into Democrat and Republican campaign coffers, and many are non-voters. That makes them even more politically expendable.
One year after Katrina's shock, the talk about fighting poverty turned out to be just that — talk. There's no reason to think that will change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews. com.