This week I have felt inundated by the TV, radio and newspaper reports commemorating the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Like many people outside of the directly affected areas, I did not realize until several days after the hurricane hit the Louisiana-Mississippi coast just how utterly devastating it was. Like many folks, I was transfixed by ongoing newscasts chronicling the death, suffering and desperation of the people trying to escape the rising floodwaters. In March I had the opportunity to see the destruction first hand on a trip to Louisiana to work with Mennonite Disaster Services. I stood on the beach in Gulfport Mississippi, I walked the streets of New Orleans’ ninth ward, and I talked with residents of the bayou where we worked. That trip profoundly and deeply affected me in ways I cannot articulate. Watching the news reports this week has brought an ache in my gut and tears to my eyes time and time again. While I did not suffer the loss and trauma of the victims of the storm, in a small way I feel connected to their agony.
Much has been made of the government’s flawed and inadequate response to the crisis a year ago. Journalists and politicians have had a field day laying blame on the leaders involved. Much of that blame is well-deserved, but I don’t want to rehearse their diatribes here. Rather, I want to focus my attention elsewhere.
More than anything else, the aftermath of Katrina has shown us just how utterly flawed and callous our economic system is when it comes to poor people. Now I should reveal my bias up front; I believe the success of an economic system can be judged by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens (I got that crazy idea from a carpenter turned itinerant preacher who lived in first century Palestine and who said something about “whatever you did unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did unto me”). On that score, the system failed—big time.
How is it that in the year following the worst natural disaster in recent U.S. history, oil companies have earned record profits? Not only did the aftermath reveal the stranglehold oil companies have on our economy, but when asked to justify their good fortune, the oil company spokespersons cited “market forces.” What we have seen in the past year is that the system rewards those with resources regardless of how others are faring. Moreover, PBS recently ran a special report revealing how the oil companies are being allowed to slide on the fees and taxes they are required by law to pay to the government. Furthermore, oil companies have routinely suppressed efforts to research and experiment with alternative energy sources, which could significantly lessen our dependence on oil. Any system that allows such brazen disregard for compassion and justice to go unchallenged is a deeply flawed system.
More recently, the insurance companies have shown their true stripes as well. While residents in New Orleans paid their homeowner’s insurance faithfully, when it came time for them to collect on their investments, they received only a fraction of the real value of the losses incurred. While people wonder if they will be able to rebuild, I don’t see any insurance companies struggling to survive. In fact they probably charged the rest of us more (presumably for less), so they can maintain their bottom line. I guess that’s those “market forces” again. If homeowner’s insurance doesn’t insure, what does it do?
And then how is it that the New Orleans Saints will be able to play their first home game in the Superdome in late September while most the residents of New Orleans can’t even begin to rebuild their homes? Somehow the owners of the Superdome were able to get their $75 million government check, while thousands of homeowners and other residents are caught up in bureaucratic red tape. I am as avid a football fan as the next person, but the priorities are really messed up here. For many people that stadium is a dome of death and despair, and probably should be torn down rather than renovated. How can such a move be justified when whole neighborhoods have not even begun to be rebuilt?
In our individualistically oriented culture, many people get nervous when suggestions are made that restrictions should be placed on people’s ability to make and create wealth. The rationale goes something like this: “Hey, if the oil barons, the insurance companies, and the owners of a football team can get away with it, more power to them. Then, if they want to give back to the community out of their largesse, that is their choice.” We get all excited when the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets give away their billions to charity, when we need to question the system that allows them to profit so wantonly in the first place.
Ironically, the U.S. Census Report on Income, Poverty & Health Insurance Coverage was released on the same day as the Katrina anniversary. The report revealed that while the overall median income in the United States rose by 1.1 %, the number of poor people remained steady at 12.6%. Moreover the poverty rates for Blacks (24.9%) and Hispanics (21.8%) remained the same, for Asians it went up (9.8 to 11.1%), whereas for whites it decreased (8.7 to 8.3%). In broad terms what these statistics mean is that only some people are benefiting by our “growing” economy. The system is not designed to benefit everyone, just those who already have more than their fair share. Those in the most vulnerable position have the least resources to take care of themselves; that’s the sign of a flawed system.
In the U.S. Census Report one pair of statistics captured the essence of the problem as I see it. The state of New Jersey was ranked as the state with the highest median income ($61672), while Camden, NJ had the lowest median income in the country of any city its size ($18,007). Camden also is reported to have 44% of its residents living below the poverty line. One “expert” said, “[These statistics] are telling us that the general good news about New Jersey isn’t reaching everyone.” No kidding!
In an incontrovertible, in-your-face way Hurricane Katrina showed us is that the great capitalistic system on which so many of us depend is not working and never was working and can not work for the benefit of all the people. Capitalism is designed to create and maintain individual wealth, not spread that wealth around. The statistics are clear, the reality is daunting, and the results are immoral and unjust. What Katrina showed us is that long after the clean-up of New Orleans and the Gulf coast, we have got another massive clean up job ahead of us: righting a system that has gone hopelessly wrong.