Commentary: Looting New Orleans, and America’s Poverty Crisis By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON Pacific News Service

Friday September 02, 2005

Two things happened in one day that tell much about the abysmal failure of the Bush administration to get a handle on poverty in America.  

The first was the tragic and disgraceful images of hordes of New Orleans residents scurrying down the city’s hurricane-ravaged streets with their arms loaded with food, clothes, appliances, and in some cases guns that they looted from stores and shops. The second was a Census Bureau report released the same day, which found that the number of poor Americans has leaped even higher since Bush took office in 2000.  

Criminal gangs, which always take advantage of chaos and misery to grab whatever they can, did much of the looting. But many desperately poor, mostly black residents saw a chance to grab items that they can’t afford. That’s still wrong, unless the items were necessary for survival. But it’s no surprise. New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates of any of America’s big cities.  

According to a report by Total Community Action, a New Orleans public advocacy group, nearly one in three of New Orleans’ 485,000 residents live below the poverty level. The majority of that group is black. A spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund noted that the city’s poor live in some of the most dilapidated housing in the nation.  

New Orleans is not an aberration. Nationally, according to Census figures, blacks remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole. They have the lowest median income of any group. Bush’s war and economic policies don’t help matters. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations. The Iraq war has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Increased American dependence on Saudi oil has driven fuel prices skyward. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America’s poverty crisis. All of this happened on Bush’s watch.  

The 2 million new jobs in 2004 Bush touts as proof that his economic policies work are mostly due to number-counting tricks. The bulk of these jobs are low-paying ones in retail and service industries, with minimum benefits and little job security. A big portion of the nearly 40 million Americans who live below the official poverty line fill these jobs. They’re the lucky ones. They have jobs. Many young blacks, such as those who ransacked stores in New Orleans, don’t.  

The poverty crisis has slammed them the hardest of all. Even during the Clinton-era economic boom, the unemployment rate for young black males was double and in some parts of the country triple that of white males.  

During the past couple of years, state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have further hammered black communities and added to high unemployment numbers among young blacks that resemble joblessness during the Great Depression. The tale of poverty is more evident in the nearly 1 million blacks behind bars, the HIV/AIDS rampage in black communities and the raging drug and gang violence in many black neighborhoods.  

Then there are the children. One-third of America’s poor are children. Worse, the Children’s Defense Fund found that nearly 1 million black children live in extreme poverty. That’s the greatest number of black children trapped in dire poverty in nearly 25 years.  

Bush officials claim the poverty numbers do not surprise them. They contend that past trends show that poverty peaks and then declines a year after the jump in new job growth. But the poverty numbers have steadily risen for all five years of the Bush administration. There has been no sign of a turnaround. For that to happen, Bush would have to reverse his tax-and-war spending policies, and commit massive funds to job, training and education programs and provide tax incentives for businesses to train and hire the poor. That would take an active national lobbying effort by Congressional Democrats, civil rights and anti-poverty groups. That’s not likely either. The poor are too nameless, faceless and vast in numbers to target with a sustained lobbying campaign.  

The NAACP hammers Bush on the Iraq war and his domestic policies, but poverty has not been their top priority. The fight for affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of all African-Americans. That effectively left out in the cold the one in four blacks who live below the official poverty level.  

The looting in New Orleans, though deplorable, put an ugly public face on a crisis that Bush administration policies have made worse. The millions in America who grow poorer, more desperate and greater in number are bitter testament to that.  


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).