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Katrina and the poor

The images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath have become both gripping and anger-provoking. Questions abound, while few answers have surfaced.

Why weren’t early predictions of a catastrophic storm hitting New Orleans acted upon? Why such a slow response from the federal government, and even more perturbing, why is someone who spent 11 years as part of some Arabian Horse Association now the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

These questions and many others will continue to be asked whether strictly on the nightly news or through a more formal congressional inquiry. The people of the Gulf Coast deserve no less.

But there is good that can come out of such tragedy. For too long many Americans have chosen not to discuss the social and economic inequality in this country. Hurricane Katrina’s destruction has exposed the plight of the less affluent, particularly in the city of New Orleans, where close to 30 percent live in poverty and some 134,000 are without transportation.

Perhaps beginning with this rebuilding process, Americans will unite in providing real equality to all.

Coinciding with the breaching of the levees in New Orleans, on the same day a census report presented figures indicating that 1.1 million more individuals lived in poverty in 2004 than in the previous year. This brings our poverty rate to some 12.7 percent of the population!

While certainly disturbing, the calculation of the poverty level underestimates the degree of the problem. For example, to be considered living in poverty in 2004, a family of two without children would have to be making less than $12,649 annually. By the federal government’s measure – in an age of increased health care, education and energy costs – a pair of spouses making $7,500 annually would not be considered living in poverty.

That is just ludicrous, unless of course you consider that a more fair representation of poverty in America would not mesh kindly with the Bush administration’s rhetoric-touting economic recovery and progress.

Indisputable is the fact that the economy grew last year. Total job growth was said to be 2.2 million and people cheer current headlines of unemployment levels at 3.8 percent in Florida and 4.9 percent nationwide. The problem with such numbers is that they mask an environment where those that could potentially escape poverty are provided low-wage income with little or no benefits or upward mobility.

The divide in income is striking. A recent New York Times editorial, mulling the same census report citing a higher poverty level, stated that “income inequality was near all-time highs in 2004, with 50.1 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.”

If you are wondering who the top 20 percent of households are, they are also the ones who will benefit the most from the current congressional term. Among legislation being considered are further cuts to Medicaid, repeal of the estate tax and extending tax cuts on investment income.

Included, but perhaps more subtle, is a new version of the Higher Education Act that would allow maximum interest rates on students loans to rise and a paltry increase in Federal Pell Grant funding. Such measures would make little difference to those who already have the means to go to college, but would be particularly burdensome on those for whom a college education is one of the only ways to provide economic stability.

Most likely the poverty level in America is far from students’ minds as they begin the fall semester all across the country. That is partially indicative of the problem. We, like previous generations, are increasingly self-interested and not concerned as much about the common welfare of all Americans.

It is only in times of natural disaster or other extreme circumstances where the consciousness of society is awakened. The wrath of Hurricane Katrina will hopefully cause this nation to address the long-term devastation caused by poverty within our borders.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.