Empowering the Poor

September 27, 2005
Dean David T. Ellwood and Scott M. Black

The Boston Globe
It took a terrible hurricane, but the poor in America, who have languished largely unmentioned by politicians of both parties, are visible once again. President Bush called upon the nation to ''confront this poverty with bold action." Bold action is precisely what is called for — and courageous action as well. For even with the president's pledges and resolve, we are poised at the edge of ignoring the lessons of Katrina and missing a historic opportunity to tackle the deeper causes of poverty.
The obvious lesson that some people are already grasping is that evacuation and rescue plans need to take account of the enormous variety of people and the sharply limited resources of many. There is far less room for error when people are living on the margin. Families who wonder how they will get through the end of the month (and Katrina hit on Aug. 29!) do not head down to Home Depot for plywood, load up the minivan, and then drive to a motel. People without cars and cash were left largely on their own to find their way out or get to an ill-prepared Superdome.
But the overriding lesson about poverty is much deeper. Many of the poor in New Orleans were left on rooftops for the same reason they were isolated in ghetto neighborhoods on the days before the storm: There was no realistic way out. The painful truth is that through policy choices, racism, class antagonisms, and neglect, we have concentrated the poor into dangerous areas with limited jobs, poor schools, no real employment networks, too few role models, and too few routes to the mainstream.
Our last significant effort to deal with the poor was welfare reform. The plan was to solve poverty by moving people from welfare to work. The old public assistance system was never the root cause of poverty, but it certainly did little to help people move ahead. The reforms did indeed move many into the workforce. Poverty fell sharply, but it has started rising again. What Katrina put in such stark relief is that for many, the move to work by itself did not move them very far along the ladder toward real security and independence.
The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast offers a truly unique opportunity to begin tackling some of these much larger dilemmas. President Bush calls for more opportunities for homeownership, incentives for small businesses — including minority-owned business — and Worker Recovery Accounts to provide funds for training or child care.
While these can be positive steps, they really are not as novel or as bold as this catastrophe demands. The massive scale of destruction offers an opportunity to give the poor a real chance to learn skills and get jobs that can take them up the ladder, to find ways to deconcentrate poverty, and to create vastly more viable neighborhoods.
Hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent. The danger is that the rebuilding will be done by outsiders who earn the money and move on, taking with them both their skills and their incomes. The obvious solution is to link our training for poorer residents to the efforts to rebuild. Training programs work best when they are tied to the needs of real employers with real jobs. Give Gulf Coast residents the skills they need to do the rebuilding. Give real preference to local residents in the hiring.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Many homes are destroyed or will need to be torn down. The first temptation is to rebuild the old. But that will just reconcentrate the poor. Now is the moment to give the poor a chance to ''move to opportunity" — to move to mixed-income neighborhoods and to places where their children stand a better chance.
The nation has already experimented with some success with strategies that give poor people resources to move to neighborhoods with far less poverty. The results suggest that such strategies are no panacea, but they help.
When we do rebuild communities, we need to pay particular attention to the institutions and infrastructure that are essential to create integrated and functional neighborhoods. Schools, community institutions, transportation networks, and jobs all need to be considered. If we are enlightened and pragmatic in that rebuilding effort, the result can be a city that works for all its citizens. New Orleans could lead the way as the nation considers what the next generation of antipoverty policy will be.
These are just a few examples. We ignored the poor in our planning for this catastrophe. We seemingly ignored their desperate cries in the first couple of days after the storm. There is enormous danger that we will ignore them again as we rebuild.
Courageous and enlightened leaders will resist the temptation to take the easy route and return the poor to their isolated and often invisible lives. Having the poor among us, and ensuring that they learn and share in the rebuilding, will threaten many powerful interests and may inflame old tensions. But this tragedy offers a glimpse of hope that our nation can once again look for a change to make universal its promise of the American dream.

David T. Ellwood, the Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy, has served as Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government since July 1, 2004. As Dean, Ellwood sets the strategic direction of the Kennedy School and leads its efforts to advance the public interest.

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