For the Poor, Sudden Celebrity

Physician Jarod Root, center, and nurse Myeshia Westbrooks talk to evacuee Bless Harris, 5, at a Dallas clinic.
Physician Jarod Root, center, and nurse Myeshia Westbrooks talk to evacuee Bless Harris, 5, at a Dallas clinic. (By Melanie Burford -- Dallas Morning News)
By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 22, 2005

DALLAS -- All of a sudden the poor have emerged from the shadows of invisibility, lifted onto a temporary pedestal by natural disaster. Whether it is because of guilt, pity or the nation's generosity in times of crisis, those who lost everything -- many of whom had little to begin with -- find themselves in a strange wonderland of recognition.

The destitute people sent fleeing by Katrina have been offered free housing, free clothing, free cars, free toys, special admission to universities and preferential job treatment. Athletes come to them , bestowing jerseys and autographs. Entertainers sing for them, and Bennigan's restaurants here and in Houston announced Katrina's kids could eat without paying for a while.

This is what it's like for the celebrity poor, a new subculture created by Hurricane Katrina.

Chris Lawrence, 49, who spent five days on a New Orleans overpass, is not sure what it all means. Mostly, he sits still in a Dallas shelter and reads the Bible. Describing himself as bone-tired after a life of working two jobs in New Orleans, he figures he's blessed just to be alive. The outpouring of kindness by Texans has restored his belief in compassion. "I had lost faith in humanity," he said.

How far this compassion should extend -- and what it should look like over time -- is looming as the next great social policy debate. What began as a response to the most devastating hurricane in the country's history is segueing to a grander discussion about the treatment of those who live on the margins. Will the Chris Lawrences now be able to improve their lives? Or will they return to their previous status as forgotten Americans with little hold on the attention or sympathies of politicians? And what of those already on the edge of poverty -- or worse -- who do not share the celebrityhood of those displaced by the ravaging floods of Katrina?

These questions are now confronting President Bush -- and the rest of political Washington. In the early days of the crisis, Bush was beset by criticism that he had been insensitive to the black and destitute. But lately, he has been speaking to them. During a prayer service for Katrina's victims at the National Cathedral in Washington on Friday, Bush said the nation must grapple with the entrenched problems of poverty.

"Americans of every race and religion were touched by this storm; yet some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle: the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor," Bush said. "And this poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality."

Some found Bush's words reassuring. Others worried that they would not resonate far into the future. "New Orleans is sort of like South Central [Los Angeles]," said Alan Curtis, president of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that funds anti-poverty programs. "People ignore the problem of poverty, then every once in a while something catastrophic happens. We talk about it, then we forget about it."

In his plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast, Bush has called for tax breaks to encourage small- and minority-business development and individual accounts of as much as $5,000 to help storm victims with job training, transportation, child care and other needs. He proposed that the federal government give poor victims its unused property, including foreclosed homes and vacant lots on which they could build their houses.

Democrats have their own big ideas. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) has proposed a Gulf Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created during the New Deal era to address issues from flood control to power production to malaria prevention. Kennedy's Gulf Coast version would fund large education, health and job training initiatives while overseeing rebuilding in the region.

The sense that Democrats have controlled the landscape on poverty and race is not lost on Republican stalwarts who hope their party doesn't miss an opportunity. Ronald Reagan's description in 1976 of the Chicago "welfare queen" who drives a Cadillac lives on as a tale of infamy, remembered by African Americans and anti-poverty advocates as crucial in fueling the perception that blacks were exploiting the welfare system.

"There really has not been a strong Republican message to either the poor or the African American community at large," said Jack Kemp, a former housing secretary and standard-bearer for Republican ideas to fight poverty.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company