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Who was left behind? And why?

052404novakmichaelPlease consider this a short follow-up post after my recent “Watching Katrina with Sen. Moynihan” effort. You may recall that this raised some questions about the moral, cultural and even religious issues looming in the background of the failed evacuation of New Orleans.

A key question: To what degree is this tragedy rooted in questions linked to family life and, in particular, the lack of fathers in most impoverished homes? I suggested that, at some point, these questions would begin to influence discussions of the future of New Orleans, or at least the city core in Orleans Parish.

Soon thereafter, David Brooks wrote about this issue in The New York Times:

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic scholar Michael Novak — winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion — wrote an essay at National Review Online that dug into the 2000 census data for New Orleans.

It is sobering reading, but I urge those who are interested in the future of the Crescent City to take the plunge. Sadly, Novak (pictured) concludes that New Orleans is the “prototypical, old-time welfare-state city.” Who would be left stranded? Sadly, that was easy to predict:

In 2000, there were only 25,000 two-parent families in New Orleans with children under 18. By contrast, there were more than 26,000 female householders with children under 18, and no husband present. In other words, slightly more mothers all alone with children than married-couple mothers. In addition, there were more than 18,000 householders who were more than 65 years old and living alone. Of these, most would normally be female.

If you add together the 26,000 female householders with children under 18, no husband present, and the 18,000 householders more than 65 years old and living alone, that is an estimated 40,000 female-headed households. That explains the pictures we are seeing on television, which are overwhelming female, most often with young children. The chances of persons in this demographic being employed full-time, year round, and with a good income, are not high. The chances of them living in poverty, and without an automobile, are exceedingly high.

So what happened? We are only now beginning to see national-level media dig into this topic. This process will be painful, but there is no way around it.

Here is the opening of a blunt story in today’s Los Angeles Times, written by Nicholas Riccardi and James Rainey. The headline is like a brick up against the side of the head: “Save Yourself — New Orleans had a plan to warn the poor, but it sat on a shelf in L.A.”

NEW ORLEANS — After years of warnings, community leaders this summer prepared a video guide to hurricane evacuations with a stark message: Many of this city’s poor, including 134,000 without cars, could be left behind in a killer storm.

But the 30-minute DVD still has not arrived. Some 70,000 of the newly minted videos that were to be released this month remain on warehouse shelves in Los Angeles. Their warning: Save yourself, and help your neighbors if you can.

“Don’t wait for the city, don’t wait for the state, don’t wait for the Red Cross,” the Rev. Marshall Truehill warns in the public service announcement.

In the end, the family is the final safety net.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    A fascinating question, although the conservative spin may be missing even deeper questions about what works and what doesn’t.

    The religion story I’ve always wanted to read was whether religion has failed the African American community. Why is it that the community with one of the highest church-going rates in the U.S. is also the most profoundly poor with high rates of HIV, out-of-wedlock births, and low marriage rates. Is it possible that religion, and the church, have utterly failed to have an impact?

    As for Novak’s dismissal of NO as a “prototypical, old-time welfare-state city,” true progressives and advocates for the poor would argue “as if.” The Great Society programs and the war on poverty was never fully funded, drained of money by wars, conservative economic policy, and conservative social policy. The NO we saw on our tv, it could be argued, is a testament to Reaganeonomics, conservative social programs, and an economic policy that assists the rich while cutting services to the poor.

    If it were an “old time welfare-state,” there would have been adequate funding of poverty programs, an intact social safety net, universal health care. The reason you don’t see the statistics regarding poverty in social welfare states in Europe and in Canada is becaue the “old fahioned welfare-state” wouldn’t tolerate it.

    Toronto or Paris or Montreal or Amsterdam would never have 1/4 of its citizens living in poverty and left helpless by the government.

  • Todd
  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/ holmegm

    Yep. Nobody wants to hear it, but this is the truth. And it’s not harsh or mean to say so, it’s just an observation of fact.

    Theory met cold, hard reality. And no, the state *didn’t* make just as good a father as a man, when push came to shove.

  • Chad Ray

    Well, yes, of course, if other institutions fail, we are left to our own devices.YOU may want to use dire circumstances to show the primacy of family, but the argument works just as well to show–if other resources fail–that everything depends on the individual, or on the government, or on your favorite institution.

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  • NateB

    “”The religion story I’ve always wanted to read was whether religion has failed the African American community. Why is it that the community with one of the highest church-going rates in the U.S. is also the most profoundly poor with high rates of HIV, out-of-wedlock births, and low marriage rates. Is it possible that religion, and the church, have utterly failed to have an impact?”"

    There are studies which show an inverse relationship between church attendance and substance abuse. I’d be surprised if this didn’t also apply to black Americans.

    http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/articles/religion2.htm

    Ironically, the explosion (that is not to strong a word to use) of the marital problems you mentioned coincided with the introduction of Scandinavian style welfare to the US in the 60′s.
    Why weren’t these problems so prevalent before the introduction of welfare?

  • Karen B.

    One thing I think we really have to examine and answer for is the elderly nursing home residents and also the hospital patients for whom there existed no effective plan of evacuation.

    It is the hospitals and nursing homes where we are beginning to see big jumps in the death toll: 28 dead here, 45 dead there, etc.

    What does it say about us as a society that we did not care for the most vulnerable? I find it very troubling to comtemplate.

  • Harris

    The use of “failed welfare state” is particularly problematic when it comes to the state of Louisiana. In 1995 statistics, participation rates Aid to Dependent Children for households below the poverty level, were about 30%, far lower than in other metropolitan areas. Likewise, the state’s monthly allowance was parsimonious, a third that of Michigan’s or of Utah’s http://www.urban.org/Template.cfm?NavMenuID=24&template=/TaggedContent/ViewPublication.cfm&PublicationID=5895#table1)

    In this context “welfare state” means something other than its nominal referent. In its Eastern US urban use, welfare is often color-coded — we mean poor and African American. Those who have sat through state battles also know that for that reason “welfare” is often a mask barely concealing the racism underneath.

    Given the pervasiveness of the urban dysfunction, the ability of a limited welfare system to cause this seems to be in doubt. Reports of how the Gretna police turned back those trying to flee the city, and the WSJ article of last week on the wealthy in New Orleans each suggest in their own ways that the problem may be far more embedded, far more a part of the region’s history and social structures.

  • Michael

    introduction of Scandinavian style welfare to the US in the 60’s.

    Of course, we never got Scandanavian style welfare because it was quickly gutted to pay for the Vietnam War and then a cavalcade of conservative economic policies which obliterated any advances. Were it that we had Scandanavian style welfare with high levels of literacy, universal health care, and minimal poverty.

    In this context “welfare state” means something other than its nominal referent. In its Eastern US urban use, welfare is often color-coded — we mean poor and African American. Those who have sat through state battles also know that for that reason “welfare” is often a mask barely concealing the racism underneath.

    Given the pervasiveness of the urban dysfunction, the ability of a limited welfare system to cause this seems to be in doubt. Reports of how the Gretna police turned back those trying to flee the city, and the WSJ article of last week on the wealthy in New Orleans each suggest in their own ways that the problem may be far more embedded, far more a part of the region’s history and social structures.

    Amen

  • NateBorcherding

    Michael:

    >Of course, we never got Scandanavian style >welfare because it was quickly gutted to pay >for the Vietnam War and then a cavalcade of >conservative economic policies which >obliterated any advances.

    In the 60′s the US government started sending out payments to perfectly fit individuals for no very good reason. This is a Scandinavian innovation.

    >Were it that we had Scandanavian style welfare >with high levels of literacy, universal health >care, and minimal poverty.

    The Scaninavian nations are a very poor example.
    First, it require us to pretend that most of the world’s people are like the Norwegians. They aren’t. Most nations do not have such a small,
    culturally, ethnically similar population, with a history of cooperating against their environment, or one of the largest sources of oil on the planet to fund their crazy schemes.

    Harris:

    >Given the pervasiveness of the urban >dysfunction, the ability of a limited welfare >system to cause this seems to be in doubt. >Reports of how the Gretna police turned back >those trying to flee the city, and the WSJ >article of last week on the wealthy in New >Orleans each suggest in their own ways that the >problem may be far more embedded, far more a >part of the region’s history and social >structures.

    The question is whether this “urban dsyfunction” has gotten better or worse with the introduction of Scandinavian welfare to America.

  • Michael

    In the 60’s the US government started sending out payments to perfectly fit individuals for no very good reason. This is a Scandinavian innovation.

    That promptly ended around 1973.

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