William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Fri, 14 Oct 2005 07:42:51 -0400


Friday, October 14, 2005

E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist

The poor will pay for Katrina

WASHINGTON - It has long been said that Americans have short attention 
spans, but this is ridiculous: Our bold, urgent, far-reaching, post-Katrina 
war on poverty lasted maybe a month.
Credit for our ability to reach rapid closure on the poverty issue goes 
first to a group of congressional conservatives who seized the post-Katrina 
initiative before advocates of poverty reduction could get their plans off 
the ground.
As soon as President Bush announced his first spending package for 
reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Republican Study 
Committee and other conservatives switched the subject from poverty 
reduction to how Katrina reconstruction plans might increase the deficit 
that their own tax-cutting policies helped create.
Unwilling to freeze any of those tax cuts, these conservatives proposed 
cutting other spending to offset Katrina costs. Some of their biggest cuts 
were in health-care programs, including Medicaid, and other spending for the 
Thus, the budget Congress is considering would cut spending by $35 billion 
and cut taxes by $70 billion. Excuse me, but doesn't this increase the 
deficit by a net of $35 billion?
Don't worry, said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a leading House conservative. 
Cutting taxes for the rich is the best anti-poverty program. "I'm mindful of 
what a pipe fitter once said to President Reagan," Pence said, according to 
The New York Times. "'I've never been hired by a poor man.' A growing 
economy is in the interest of every working American, regardless of their 
In other words, the conservatives have moved the conversation to ideas that 
go back to Calvin Coolidge's low-tax economics from the 1920s. And they say 
liberals are the folks with the "old" ideas?
If it didn't matter, I'd be inclined to salute the agenda-setting genius of 
the right wing. But since we need a national conversation on poverty, it's 
worth considering that conservatives were successful in pushing it back in 
part because of weaknesses on the liberal side.
Right out of the box, conservatives started blaming the persistent poverty 
unearthed by Katrina on the failure of "liberal programs." If there was a 
liberal retort, it didn't get much coverage in the supposedly liberal media.
It's conservatives, after all, who spent almost a decade touting the genius 
of the 1996 welfare reform and claiming that because so many people had been 
driven off welfare rolls, poverty was no longer a problem.
Yes, welfare reform worked better than some of us expected in the 1990s. But 
Katrina underscored the limits of welfare reform by showing how many people 
had been left behind. It also brought home the failure of conservative 
economics. The Clinton economy - bolstered by balanced budgets, tax 
increases on the rich, and the expansion of innovative programs such as the 
Earned Income Tax Credit and health coverage for the poor - cut the number 
of poor people by 7.7 million between 1993 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2004, 
on the other hand, the number of poor rose by 4.1 million.
Or consider that the recent Census Bureau report found that the percentage 
of Americans getting private, job-based health insurance fell from 63.6 
percent in 2000 to 59.8 percent in 2004. What held down the number of 
Americans without insurance altogether? The proportion insured under 
government programs - Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance 
Program - rose from 10.6 percent in 2000 to 12.9 percent in 2004. A time 
when more Americans than ever need government-provided health insurance is 
when we should expand government assistance for health care, not cut it 
back. It's also a good time for raising the minimum wage and increasing the 
help the Earned Income Tax Credit offers the working poor.
But liberals also need to seize the initiative by speaking candidly about 
the social causes of poverty. These include family breakdown and the heavy 
concentration of very poor people in a small number of neighborhoods in our 
big cities. Just because some conservatives are tempted, wrongly, to blame 
all poverty on problems in the family doesn't mean that liberals should shy 
away from talking about the difficulties faced by children in fatherless 
I was naive enough to hope that after Katrina, the left and the right might 
have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poor. I guess 
we've moved on. You can lay a lot of the blame for this indifference on 
conservatives. But it will be a default on the part of liberals if the poor 
disappear again from public view without a fight.
E.J. Dionne's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His 
e-mail address is postchat@aol.com