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Dec 2005 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Learning the Lessons of Hurricane Katrina
By Jeanette Mott Oxford

In the first weeks after 9/11, media commentators constantly talked about how the U.S.A. had been forever changed by that terrible tragedy. They said our nation had grown up, sobered up, was weaned from its fascination with celebrities and frivolous preoccupations. Yet within a few months we returned to a steady diet of vulgar television shows and over-hyped sporting events.

Now as we weep at the suffering and death, destruction and chaos left behind by Hurricane Katrina, we again face a crucial moment of decision. A new conversation has started about how racism and poverty impacted on who survived and who did not, as well as the life circumstances of hurricane victims before the flood.

Jeanette Mott Oxford It is essential that we not fall into the mistakes that followed the collapse of the Twin Towers. Following 9/11 President Bush called for vigilance, but not mutual sacrifice, instead giving hefty tax cuts to the wealthiest among us, while tightening the eligibility guidelines on safety net programs for our most vulnerable citizens. Likewise in Missouri, Governor Blunt slashed Medicaid, adoption subsidies and many other helping programs, saying this was our only alternative if we were to live within our means.

Hopefully now, after Katrina, our eyes have been opened. Let us take on the shared moral responsibility to act for the common good and address poverty with justice, not just charity

Low-wage workers do some of the most important tasks in our nation: bathing sick bodies; laundering nursing home sheets; tending our children while we are at work; seeing that food is stored, prepared and served in sanitary conditions; and so much more. Yet neighbors in these low-wage jobs constantly struggle with eviction and utility disconnection notices, even if working full-time and more than one job.

Let us make the public policy changes needed to see that no worker lives in poverty. All workers should have the simple dignity of decent housing, access to healthcare, safe and affordable childcare and a high quality public education for their children.

These goals are not pie-in-the-sky dreams. Other industrialized nations have instituted public policies to achieve these aims. If we focus on the common good, we could achieve these goals in the U.S. as well.

Yes, that may mean sacrifice. Remember sacrifice? It was something our government called upon us to do in the Depression and World War II, and it is often the key to survival for the most vulnerable among us. It is the underlying value behind Social Security and progressive tax systems where those most able to pay bear the largest burden, instead of the smallest, as is current policy.

Another needed response is to tell the truth with the numbers we use. The federal poverty level that is the basis for eligibility guidelines for many helping programs is out-dated and undercounts the poor by as much as half. Instead of 37 million Americans living in poverty, the true number of neighbors who cannot afford the basic necessities of life exceeds 70 million. But using current eligibility guidelines, families in poverty lose needed supports long before they can afford shelter, clothing, heat, food, medicine or a doctor's care.

Wouldn't it be great if Missouri played a leading role in honoring the victims of Hurricane Katrina by winning this step toward justice? What if we ask Senator Bond, Senator Talent and the Missouri Congressional delegation to lead a national movement to correct the inaccuracy of the federal poverty level? They could seek legislation to base this important measurement on the true cost of living instead of spending patterns from the1950s that no longer hold true.

A strong house depends on a foundation of truth. Hurricane Katrina shows us that we can no longer afford to keep skewing the numbers to hold down social service caseloads or poverty counts. When we fail to provide services to those who need help, we simply shift costs to other places. For example, when our neighbors cannot access mental health, they wind up in emergency rooms, police cars and courtrooms. That increases the cost of private insurance, law enforcement and prisons.

So many are opening their hearts to others and pitching in to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf communities. Let us do even more. Now is the time to right old wrongs, build a more inclusive community and knit ourselves into a stronger and safer nation where liberty and justice for all is a reality.

Jeanette Mott Oxford is a Missouri State Representative serving the 59th District.

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