American poverty: two views

Being in the USA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has given a curious view about the American response to poverty and the needy. The charity and helpfulness of local groups is impressive. At the Duke Chapel on Sunday, members of the congregation were bringing offerings of toiletries and many other things. We got given packs to take up with us, which was mildly embarrassing when it wasn’t stuff we had brought, but we did at least donate money. The local newspaper has a page full of details of how you can help in the aftermath, and there are numerous stories every day about those who are helping, sometimes in very substantial ways.

And yet… The same paper carries a syndicated column from the Washington Post (by George F. Will). (The full column is at This includes the following:

He [Senator Barack Obama, a rising Black democrat] might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.

Liberalism’s post-Katrina fearlessness in discovering the obvious — if an inner city is inundated, the victims will be disproportionately minorities — stopped short of indelicately noting how many of the victims were women with children but not husbands.

The rescuer workers are still digging corpses out of New Orleans, but that doesn’t stop right-wingers blaming the victims. (Whereas the very suggestion made after Sep 11th 2001 that US foreign policy might have contributed to the attacks was a vile insult to those affected).

The right-wing lies about poverty are immediately obvious. This is from an article on homelessness in North Carolina (

Billie Guthrie, a housing coordinator for the OPC Area Program, said there are many root causes of homelessness, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and poor access to mental health care….James Newkirk, a homeless man, said it will take people caring for and encouraging one another to make a difference. He said a car crash put him in a hospital for 11 months where he had to relearn to walk and talk. Without a car, he lost his job as a manager at a Target store in Durham, which stays open later than the buses run.

A column in the business section meanwhile says that the costs of health insurance are spiraling upwards and fewer companies are offering health benefits to their employees (down to around 60%). Family medical insurance coverage now costs an average of $10,880, more than the gross earnings for a full-time minimum-wage worker. Employees typically contribute about $3713 of this. In other words, if you’re on a minimum wage and you’re one of the 40% who don’t get covered, you could spend all your income and more just to get health cover (never mind silly little things like food and rent). And no amount of tax cuts is going to change that (the reference is to gross income, not net income).

Why isn’t the US public, which obviously includes a lot of individuals who care about poor people, concerned about a system which leaves so many people vulnerable to poverty? I wish I knew…


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