Apparently, it took divine intervention in the form of Hurricane Katrina to make George W. Bush, the compassionate conservative, aware of the existence of poor people in our midst.
"As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality," said a president who has not only overseen a nearly 9% income decline for the poorest fifth of the nation's population but won the job boasting of his record as governor of a state that census figures show has the fifth-highest poverty level and highest percentage of citizens lacking medical insurance.
Unfortunately, the president still seems to believe that the severe poverty of New Orleans is an anomaly exposed by the storm, rather than a disturbing national reality he should have long since confronted. One wishes he would take to heart the words Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas offered before Bush spoke at the National Cathedral on Friday: "Katrina, perhaps she has done something to this nation that we needed to have done. She has made us think, and look, and reach beyond the breach." He also noted: "We can no longer be a nation that overlooks the poor and the suffering and continue past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras, or past Harlem for Manhattan, or past Compton for Rodeo Drive."
Of course, it should not have taken a devastating hurricane to reveal to our president the depth of human misery in a nation that could easily afford to have no poor people. Perhaps Bush simply hasn't fallen far enough from the tree, considering it was famously said of his father that he was a man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. His even more clueless mother thinks letting devastated African American evacuees sleep in the Astrodome worked out "very well for them" because they "were underprivileged anyway."
One would have hoped that the avowedly "born again" younger Bush would have witnessed the disconnect between the teachings of the son of God, which repeatedly counsel aiding the poor and vulnerable, and his own family's "let them eat cake" approach to governance. After all, 37 million Americans — 13 million of them children — are living in poverty, 4.5 million more than when Bush was first inaugurated. This sad fact is never mentioned when the president trumpets the alleged benefits of his tax cuts for the rich.
"This is a matter of public policy," Bill Clinton said on Sunday, belatedly challenging the government's woeful response to the hurricane. "And whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the '80s; that's what they've done in this decade."
The man should know. After all, though he hardly solved the issue in downtrodden Arkansas or the country, poverty levels did significantly decline during his presidency (from 15.1% of the population in 1993 to 11.3% in 2000).
Bush may be getting the message that government is not the enemy. But forced by his worst political crisis to suggest that government has a major role to play in not only reconstructing the Gulf Coast but also in confronting the reality of a patently unequal playing field, the president has angered "Reagan revolution" conservatives.
For example, conservative pundit George Will, frightened that Bush's promise to significantly assist the devastated Gulf Coast might unleash a new wave of social spending, rushed last week to assert the pervasive myth that this nation has a level playing field. Staying out of poverty is simple, he argued, if you just follow "three not-at-all recondite rules: . . . Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager."
But do Will and his ilk really believe a child raised in foster homes and juvenile hall, or an 85-year-old living on Social Security, can so simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Sadly enough, it may be harder to get conservative journalists or politicians into the world of a junior high school kid in an impoverished neighborhood than to get a camel through the eye of a needle.
© 2005 Robert Scheer