As Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, American reporters made a startling discovery. The Border Patrol guys must have been sleeping at their posts because, somehow, while the rest of us were distracted by those enchanting info-graphics on the Weather Channel, the Third World managed to sneak into the United States.
Of course, our national leaders were all on vacation when it happened. So, in the terse words of the New York Times' David Carr, "it was left to reporters embedded in the mayhem to let Americans know that a Third World country had suddenly appeared on the Gulf Coast."
USA Today was one of the many media outlets to break the bad news, remarking in a horrified editorial that the scene in New Orleans resembled that in "Third World refugee camps."
On CNN, producer Michael Heard confirmed it: Interstate 10 in New Orleans was "very Third World," with people wandering around "like nomads" and streets filled with water that "just looks unhealthy."
By week's end, U.S. News & World Report was commenting that "as the Third World images of death and devastation reeled across the nation's TV screens," Americans were stirred to "an almost palpable sense of anger." On Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith lamented that things just aren't going to be the same anymore: We can "remove the dead, repair the levee, pump out the water and move on," but we'll be "forever scarred by Third World horrors unthinkable in this nation until now."
Apparently none of these ace reporters has ever set foot in Washington's Anacostia district, or South Central Los Angeles, or the trailer parks of rural Arkansas. Had they done so — or maybe just taken the time to get acquainted with the cleaners vacuuming their offices, or the homeless men selling newspapers at busy intersections — they'd have learned what 37 million Americans already know from personal experience: The Third World didn't sneak in along with Hurricane Katrina. It's been here all the time. Yup, you heard it here first! Even using the federal government's Scrooge-like definition, about 13% of Americans — and 18% of American children — live in poverty. They live in poverty all year round, not just on special occasions like during hurricanes. And they're all over this nation, not just in New Orleans.
When you break down key economic development indicators by income group and race, you find that conditions for poor Americans rival those in developing countries.
For instance, in many American cities, the infant mortality rate among blacks, who are disproportionately likely to be poor, is more than double the infant mortality rate among whites. An estimated 13 million American children went hungry at some point last year, and 11.6% of American children had no health insurance.
But just as it takes a mass famine or a tsunami to generate media attention for the Third World beyond our borders, it took the destruction of a major American city for the media to notice the Third World here at home.
A few doddering old souls may still recall the 1960s, when the media also briefly discovered poverty. Back then, government hadn't yet gone out of fashion, and politicians appalled by stories of privation responded with the ambitious programs of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Remember the war on poverty?
But — yawn — poverty just isn't that interesting, and by the time of Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the war on poverty quietly shifted into a war on the poor.
The Bush administration has waged that war with a level of bellicosity undreamed of even by the architects of the Reagan revolution, slashing social programs while cutting taxes for the wealthy.
Today there are two Americas: the First World one, with its Starbucks and SUVs, and the Third World one, which is generally out of sight and out of mind for journalists cowed by conservative attacks on the "liberal media."
But closing your eyes never makes a problem go away. And sure enough, here they are again, washed up by Hurricane Katrina's tides: America's Third World residents, "so poor and
so black," as CNN's Wolf Blitzer infelicitously put it.
And the media are now discovering that, aside from their lamentable poorness and blackness (a skin shade that in fact characterizes only about 30% of nation's poor), our very own Third World residents are an awful lot like the rest of us. They're ordinary people, working hard to get by, trying to preserve their families and their dignity as best they can in a catastrophic situation.
In the past, media "discoveries" of poverty have ushered in sweeping government policy changes, but many of those changes have been short-lived, fading away as soon as the fickle light of media attention stops shining. In New Orleans last week, scores of reporters experienced firsthand some of the miseries of America's Third World.
Maybe this time around, the media won't forget about the poor quite so quickly.
Rosa Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
© 2005 LA Times