Spotlight Exclusives

Poverty and Race Intersect in New Orleans, by Ambassador James Joseph, Chairman of the Board of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation

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In a few weeks, New Orleans will host an event sponsored by the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (LDRF) and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity ( to highlight the lingering aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the vast challenges facing the poor who live along the Gulf Coast. More public attention must be focused on what priority the next Administration will give to ensuring that victims of the hurricanes have the resources they need to rebuild communities. In particular, the next president must address the racial inequality that contributes to the poverty plaguing this nation, and has had terrible consequences for African-Americans who live in the region.

The images of suffering along the Gulf Coast in the storm۪s wake have doubtlessly affected the political landscape of 2008. The storm shook America۪s faith in government to respond to people۪s needs in times of trouble. But we should also be concerned about what the disaster showed us about the connections between race and poverty in America. Those hurt the most by the storm and those who even two years later continue to scrape by in homes, neighborhoods, shops, and schools that have still not been fully rebuilt are the poorest among us.

The truth is that poverty in this country is too often paired with racial inequity. Despite nearly half a century of advances in civil rights, the poorest among us are still far more likely to be African-American or Hispanic. Nearly 25 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics live below the poverty level. When we talk about poverty, we are also often talking about race.

Solving the twin challenges of racial and economic inequality should be a central part of our national agenda, especially when thinking about disaster preparedness. Census data indicates that the poor:

  • Are more likely to live in homes which are less sturdy and are more likely to be overcrowded;
  • Are far less likely to own cars or be able to afford transportation out of a disaster zone;
  • Are the least likely among us to have insurance or any savings for emergencies.

We must push beyond short-term solutions such as buying more mobile homes or combating debit card fraud. We need a new, holistic approach that addresses the underlying factors that prevented so many from escaping the ravages of Katrina. This depends on an active federal government with a long-range vision.

Two years later, New Orleans is still not close to fully rebuilt, especially in the poorer, predominately African-American wards. According to the Brookings Institution, 66 percent of the pre-Katrina population has returned. Even more dramatic, only 40 percent of students have returned to public schools and substantially fewer black students have returned.

Rebuilding is about more than just clearing debris and constructing new homes and schools. Those are important tasks. But we also need to invest in tackling racial and economic disparity in order to help the poorest create a better life. We must heal the divisions in the Gulf region so that every American, regardless of race or economic status, feels more physically and financially secure.

The LDRF event this month will be an important step in putting a focus on the issue. To succeed, we will need sustained attention from our leaders, the media, and our fellow citizens.

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