Discovering the Underclass: A view from Detroit … and elsewhere

Jack Lessenberry writes in the Detroit Metro Times, “Suddenly, we found out that, gee whiz, everybody in America doesn’t have a fancy car, a cell phone that takes pictures or even wireless Internet,” but Bush is at least pretending to have gotten the message. He had some prompting:

“Until we love enough to trade places with the poor, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised, even the minorities,” said the Rev. T.D. Jakes of Dallas, looking directly down at the president, “then the healing will not be real.”

The country must “not stop until we have raised them up to an acceptable standard of living,” Jakes said. “The Good Samaritan never said a word to the victim” he stopped to help, he said. “It is not important what we say. It is important what we do.”

So Bush said some fine things:

The task, Bush said, “will measure our unity as a people. Americans of every race and religion were touched by this storm, yet some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle: the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor.

“And this poverty,” he said, “has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity.

“As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. Let us deliver new hope to communities that were suffering before the storm. “As we rebuild homes and businesses,” Bush said, “we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency.”

Bush has here acknowledged the fallacy of the fable of unlimited opportunity, the ideological claim that in America, anyone, through hard work, can succeed.

Richard Stevenson, wrote in The New York Times:

To those storm victims in need of immediate help and to those who face the continued upheaval of their lives for weeks or months or longer, [Bush] offered an expansive government safety net of specific programs, from paying the costs of reuniting families to a commitment to moving everyone out of shelters into housing by mid-October. Doing so marked a distinct shift for a president whose perceived hostility or indifference to government’s role in social welfare programs – manifested in budgets that have sought to cut such programs or curtail them – has long been a flash point in his relationship with poor and minority voters.

But if this was big government, it was at least in part on Mr. Bush’s ideological terms: federal reimbursement to allow displaced students to attend private and parochial schools, tax-free business zones, a call for charitable and religious groups to continue with relief work. Having no choice but to open the fiscal floodgates, he sought to reassure nervous conservatives that he would guard against fraud and waste.

Other Republicans clearly don’t get it:

One fiscal conservative, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said Thursday, “I don’t believe that everything that should happen in Louisiana should be paid for by the rest of the country. I believe there are certain responsibilities that are due the people of Louisiana.”

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, called for restoring “sanity” to the federal recovery effort. Congress has approved $62 billion, mostly to cover costs already incurred, and the price tag is rising. The House and Senate approved tax relief Thursday at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion on top of $3.5 billion in housing vouchers approved by the Senate on Wednesday.

Some are comparing Bush’s proposals to the New Deal. Paul Krugman leads by writing, “Now it begins: America’s biggest relief and recovery program since the New Deal. And the omens aren’t good.” Where Franklin Delano Roosevelt “created a powerful ‘division of progress investigation’ to look into complaints of malfeasance in the W.P.A., Krugman points to “Bunnatine Greenhouse, a highly regarded auditor at the Army Corps of Engineers who suddenly got poor performance reviews after she raised questions about Halliburton’s contracts in Iraq. She was demoted late last month.” Krugman also points to “the realities of [Mississippi’s and Louisiana’s] political cultures. Last year the newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter ranked the states according to the number of federal public-corruption convictions per capita. Mississippi came in first, and Louisiana came in third.”

In the end, acknowledging the fallacy of the fable of unlimited opportunity may not translate to to real action to widen opportunity. Some of Bush’s proposals stink of “trickle down” economics. If Iraq has been a boon for Halliburton, who will benefit from Katrina?

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