Poverty: The Katrina dialogue that never happened

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's a good time to stop and reflect: whatever happened to that "dialogue about poverty and race" that the 2005 storms were supposed to inject into the national debate?

In a recent Washington Post column, Michael Fletcher takes us back to August/September 2005 and its aftermath:

Poverty forced its way to the top of President Bush's agenda in the confusing days after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. Confronted with one of the most pressing political crises of his presidency, Bush, who in the past had faced withering criticism for speaking little about the poor, said the nation has a solemn duty to help them.

"All of us saw on television, there's . . . some deep, persistent poverty in this region," he said in a prime-time speech from New Orleans's Jackson Square, 17 days after the Aug. 29 hurricane. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

As it happened, poverty's turn in the presidential limelight was brief. Bush has talked little about the issue since the immediate crisis passed, while pursuing policies that his liberal critics say will hurt the poor. He has publicly mentioned domestic poverty six times since giving back-to-back speeches on the issue in September. Domestic poverty did not come up in his State of the Union address in January, and his most recent budget included no new initiatives directed at the poor.

In many ways, this was the second tragedy of Katrina. First our leaders left Gulf residents to fend for themselves in the 2005 storms, which claimed 2,000 lives. And then the Gulf and its people were left behind again -- the bright visions of Gulf renewal abandoned, the commitment to economic and racial justice taken off the agenda.

Not only is the Gulf still reeling -- 50% of the New Orleans population still hasn't returned because the schools, hospitals, and other basics haven't either. But nationally, poverty is growing too, having risen every year since Bush came in office -- from 31.6 million in 2000 to 37 million in 2004. Personal bankruptcies and home foreclosures are at record levels and rising (especially in the South). One in four jobs pay less than a poverty-level income.

The White House is unapologetic about his lack of interest in tackling these bread-and-better issues, as Bush's press secretary Tony Snow relates:

"Does he often talk about poverty? No," Snow said. "There hasn't been a direct discussion of poverty, but he is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress."

Which "people" is he referring to -- energy executives?