One year ago, President George W. Bush belatedly left his extended vacation to come, finally, to devastated New Orleans to address the nation about the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.
His administration had already failed in the rescue of the survivors and was in the process of failing in the resettlement of the displaced. But, in a White House-orchestrated stage setting, the president dramatically promised not only to do whatever it took to rebuild New Orleans, but to "confront ... with bold action" the "deep persistent poverty" that had been revealed.
Now, one year later, the results are in. Half of New Orleans' population is still displaced. Almost a third of the debris left by the hurricane has yet to be removed. Approximately half of all bus and streetcar routes are up and running, but only 17 percent of buses are in use. An estimated 278,000 workers have been displaced, 23 percent of whom remain unemployed. Half of the major hospitals have reopened, but Charity Hospital, the primary hospital for the indigent and uninsured, has not. At least 100,000 households still live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
The poorest citizens are once more the most burdened. The administration has utterly failed in the construction of affordable housing, even while destroying pubic housing that was barely touched by the storm. Just as Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson predicted, New Orleans has gone from a majority-Black to a majority-White city, with the poor scattered across 50 states and no program designed to help them come home.
The administration likes to brag about the money allocated to the region, but little of it has been spent on actual reconstruction, and the catastrophic incompetence, corruption and cronyism of this conservative administration has squandered much of what has been spent. Billions have been wasted in no-bid contracts to firms like Halliburton, wired into the Bush operation through political contributions. Local small business has been at the back of the line in getting contracts, and no serious job training program has been established to train local residents in the skills needed to rebuild their city.
Private school vouchers have been preferred over public schools in dire need of funds. Investment in vital public infrastructure has been delayed and scrimped, even as tax breaks are lavished on private speculators. As a report by the Campaign for America's Future details, we will end up spending more and getting less because of the costs of what the authors call "catastrophic conservatism."
On the president's pledge to redress entrenched poverty, the record is even worse. The White House presented not one new program to fulfill the pledge. Worse, the administration pushed through cuts in programs for the poor — Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, college loans, day care — that reduced what little support the poor had when the president made the pledge.
The president broke his own promise to fund the reforms in public schools that serve the poorest people. More poor workers go without health care for their families. The shortage of affordable housing is far greater. The cost of college is being priced out of the reach of even middle-income families. And the White House continued to oppose increasing the minimum wage and continued to wage war on unions that might help poor workers gain a fair share of the profits that they help generate.
One year later, there are more poor people and more people living in deeper poverty than they have in decades. The administration has spent nearly $300 billion to meet the president's pledge to build democracy in Iraq, but it devoted no new resources to meet the president's pledge on reducing entrenched poverty. The president's promise in New Orleans was simply theater — only farce, not drama.
Forty-three years ago, on Aug. 28, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, and delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The Rev. King had a dream, but he was not a dreamer. He had a plan — and he marched on Washington to redeem a check for African Americans and the poor that had bounced, stamped "insufficient funds."
He called on America to invest in lifting the poor, in providing the health care, education, day care that children needed for a fair start, and in providing the training and jobs so that every person might work and lift his or her family from poverty.
The Rev. King's "dream" has become part of our collective memory. But his plan was abandoned — the check still went unredeemed, as the war on poverty was lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Now, four decades later, Katrina revealed once more the entrenched poverty of our cities. And once more the promises have been made and broken, lost this time in the deserts of Iraq.
As citizens, we deserve and should demand better than that.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.