Thursday, November 24, 2005

Post-Katrina Moment ...

David Brooks (2005) suggests that “Hurricane Katrina has given us an amazing chance to do something serious about urban poverty.”

“That's because Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.”

“It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs,” says Brooks, “and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn't working…” Many with whom I talk agree that the city was not working, leading to Brooks’ next statement:

“The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before… If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.”

Brooks’ second rule may be a bit harder to accomplish: “Culturally Integrate.” He points to successful trial programs which “integrate people who lack middle-class skills into neighborhoods with people who possess these skills and who insist on certain standards of behavior.”

The lesson is that “if you break up zones of concentrated poverty, you can see (economic) progress over time… In the post-Katrina world, that means we ought to give people who don't want to move back to New Orleans the means to disperse into middle-class areas nationwide. (That's the kind of thing Houston is beginning to do right now.)”

Brooks says that “For New Orleans, the key will be luring middle-class families into the rebuilt city, making it so attractive to them that they will move in, even knowing that their blocks will include a certain number of poor people.”

Government policies must support this new approach. “As people move in, the rebuilding effort could provide jobs for those able to work. Churches, the police, charter schools and social welfare agencies could be mobilized to weave the social networks vital to resurgent communities. The feds could increase earned-income tax credits so people who are working can rise out of poverty. Tax laws could encourage business development.”

Brooks cautions that “This is the post-Katrina moment. Let's not blow it.”

Brooks, David “Katrina's Silver Lining” New York Times OpEd. September 8, 2005


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