June 7, 2007
Realities of poverty and devastation in the Katrina-affected Gulf are still unchanged
(Page 2 - Previous Page)There is one strong sentiment shared by the displaced families of the Gulf region and the Milken Conference panelists: The federal government has failed the people devastated by these horrific storms. But the families reserve their major ire for state and local politicians, who many believe have squandered available resources.
A common complaint concerns the governor's decision to pay a private company more than $700 million to distribute federal rebuilding funds. Many also are angry with insurance companies, which are denying coverage to thousands like Turner. Displaced low-income families are crying out for leadership that will help pave the road to get them home.
But the would-be leaders, the politicians and business community are focused elsewhere, making it impossible to ignore the total disconnect between their priorities and the needs of low-income families still struggling for the most basic of necessities. The community organizers and local organizations working in the areas we visited think the politicians are crazy, contemptful of the poor or both. And the politicians and businessmen don't seem to think anything about these people at all.
A number of these organizations, like Southern Mutual Help Association and ACORN, are working hard to rebuild homes one at a time. But the amount of work needed to rebuild entire communities clearly exceeds the capacity of local nonprofits and, for that matter, local government.
Federal elected officials and all of the serious presidential candidates must seize what has until now been a hollow slogan and initiate a true Marshall Plan for the Gulf region. When compared to rebuilding Europe after World War II or, indeed, to the scope of our current involvement in Iraq, rebuilding these neighborhoods is eminently doable.
The strength of a community is based on its residents, and shiny tourism statistics can't mask the fact that these communities have been torn apart and not yet put back together.
While many viewed the exposure of New Orleans' poverty as an opportunity for a new national debate on the haves and the have-nots, the glaring inequities exposed by the hurricanes on national TV have not been remedied. The time for debate and finger-pointing is clearly over. There can be no serious split of viewpoint on the injustice of this situation, and it is up to all of us to step up on behalf of those who have not been heard.
Mitchell A. Kamin is president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a Los Angeles nonprofit poverty law organization. He currently chairs the Legal Aid Association of California, the statewide organization of public-interest lawyers and agencies.
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