Katrina, poverty and the shame of the cities

A lot of commentators have pointed to New Orleans' endemic poverty as a main explanation for what went wrong in the aftermath of Katrina. Put bluntly, the argument is that New Orleans was vulnerable to social breakdown because so many damn poor people lived there. Poverty prevented these people from evacuating and, in the absence of help from the government, chaos ensued. This strain of analysis offers a measure of reassurance to all of us who don't live in the beleagured city because, well, we don't live there. But it's a false reassurance.

Why? Because when it comes to urban poverty, New Orleans is not exceptional. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey--released, fittingly enough, the day the levees failed--23.2 percent of the residents of New Orleans lived below the poverty level last year. Appalling as that may be, it put New Orleans in 12th place among major American cities.

Indeed, the Census Bureau figures paint a picture of grinding poverty all across urban America. There are 30 major cities in the U.S. where the poverty rate is within five percentage points of the rate found in New Orleans. Some--Newark, Atlanta, Philadelphia--are no surprise; others are. In Minneapolis, a city that prides itself as a model of civic health, 19.1 percent of the city's residents lived below the poverty line last year. (In St. Paul, the figure is 13.9 percent).

The implications are disturbing. If Katrina illustrated how tenuous the social contract had become in New Orleans, the Census Bureau figures demonstate how much New Orleans looks like the rest of urban America.

A final note: the government's poverty standards are ridiculous and, by any reasonable measure, don't include a lot of desperately poor people. In 2004, a single person had to earn less than $9,827 to qualify as impoverished. For a couple, the income threshold was $12,429; for a household of seven, a preposterous $27,159.

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