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human & civil rights | katrina aftermath

No Longer Behind The Curtain

Hurricane Katrina not only flooded a city and flattened a coast. She also blew away the thick curtain our nation had drawn across our most poor.
No Longer Behind The Curtain

In January of 2001, a newly elected, though some would argue selected, president spoke in his inaugural address of an "unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born." Of the American ideal, these lofty words are among the finest ever spoken.

But lofty words float hollow and weightless when not spoken with the gravity of conviction. In the more than four years since this president spoke these words, millions more Americans have been shut out of belonging, of getting their chance, and of ever again believing that their country considers them significant. This national migration into poverty went largely unnoticed, until Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina not only flooded a city and flattened a coast. She also blew away the thick curtain our nation had drawn across our most poor. "Pay no attention to the poor behind the curtain!" those controlling the levers in Washington will now say, as they desperately try to distract us with more smoke and loud noises. But it is too late; Katrina has exposed our poor for all the world to see.

Since January 2001, when those lofty words were uttered, the ranks of the poor in America have swelled by over four million. Today, one in five children in the greatest nation on earth live in poverty. Nearly 50 million Americans are without health care. Meanwhile, astoundingly, out of spite or simply in oblivion, our political leaders in Washington are readying for a vote to repeal the estate tax.

That they would even consider another giveaway to the richest among us just weeks after a national tragedy became a national disgrace reveals the dark truth of America in the 21st century: powerful people run America for other powerful people. As starkly evidenced by the hundreds if not thousands who died in New Orleans from sheer neglect, there is no longer anyone running America for the rest of us.

The American people, no matter what they believed to be their party affiliation before, must no longer stand for this. No longer can we neglect the American ideal. No longer can we neglect the important issues and challenges of our day. No longer can we allow our government to fail to serve the public, and fail to "provide for the general welfare".

A half century ago, another president, Harry Truman, said: "The president is the only lobbyist that 150 million Americans have. The other 20 million are able to employ people to represent them -and that's all right, it's the exercise of the right of petition - but someone has to look out after the interests of the 150 million that are left."

There are many more of us now, lacking representation, and getting mad as hell. We're out here, and we're still holding on to that American ideal. We believe that America is still the land of equal opportunity, where everyone has an equal chance of finding success. And we believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules deserves a chance to build a better life for themselves and their families, and to live out the American dream.

We believe that we all have the same worth. We believe that liberty and justice are for all, not for some. We believe that no one should be left out or left behind. We believe in improving government, not eliminating it. And we believe that America needs poverty relief, not tax relief for the rich.

But these are not the things our leaders in Washington believe, even as they are still the things most Republicans as well as Democrats outside the Beltway believe. Instead, our leaders in Washington believe in "shrinking government" so small that it can be "drowned in a bathtub." While they've certainly not shrunk wasteful spending or the national deficit over these past four years, Katrina showed that they've succeeded in shrinking the agencies meant to serve the public good.

Only it wasn't government that was then drowned; it was a city, and it's poor.

September 14, 2005

Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and political columnist living in Eugene, Oregon. He can be reached at  huffmanhouse@att.net.