Published on Monday, September 19, 2005 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Poor Shamed Us Into Seeing Them
by Janet Pelz
Hurricane Katrina showed us faces the Republicans never wanted us to see -- the elderly, the infirm, the poor. The ones with no car to get them out of the city before the storm hit, the ones unable to pay for hotel rooms until the waters receded. The ones with no health insurance to recover from the ravages of insulin shock, kidney failure or dehydration. The ones lying face down in the cesspool or dying of heatstroke in the Superdome.
These are the people the Republicans have been teaching us to disdain, if not hate, since President Reagan decried the moral laxness of the Welfare Mom.
And for the past 25 years, they've been successful. As long as the poor remained out of sight, they could be described in whatever undeserving light the Republicans chose, and the rest of us would be unwilling to challenge them.
This second Bush administration was to be the conservatives' crowning glory. They would finish slicing government to the bone, sacrificing environmental protections, critical infrastructure investments, health and human services, all to massive tax cuts. Yes, the long climb back from the precipice of the New Deal was within reach.
That is, until the poor came out of hiding and shamed us into seeing them.
The neoconservatives had sold us their theory -- each of us should take care of ourselves. Citizens (at least those morally upstanding enough to be wealthy) could do better for ourselves than the government could do for us. They touted the ownership society, where we privatize our own piece of Social Security. They advocated that each of us pay for our own health care rather than requiring our employers to contribute. They rejected environmental regulation at the expense of what we could do with our own property.
Their theory works just fine for the families sheltering multimillion-dollar estates for their children. It works for Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who will rebuild that one home destroyed in the hurricane.
But for those who work full time for Wal-Mart, receiving minimum wage with no health or other benefits, their theory is as sound as the Lake Pontchartrain levee.
It is the faces of these Wal-Mart workers, janitors and child care providers, however, that we watched during the past weeks. They were the ones desperate for someone to pull them off the roof, get help for their neighbor, reunite them with children they put in a helicopter gurney.
It was these people, whose black faces may not be the color of our own, whose English may not be as refined. We can't ignore that their fear, their devotion to family and their outrage in government is the same as ours. That's why their presence on television is so threatening to the Republicans' agenda. We can't hate those who are as worthy, as human, as we.
Yes, the response for this natural disaster was shameful. But the man-made disaster that put these American citizens in the vulnerable position of becoming the hurricane's victims is that much more shameful.
The poor in this country deserve more than a contribution to the Red Cross. They deserve a government that gets them not just off the roof but also out of the margins of American society and into the sun that shines on the rest of us.
Janet Pelz of Seattle is a public-affairs consultant.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer