Michael K. Brackett Sr. was standing outside his apartment in Southeast Washington on Saturday, taking a break after hours of watching televised coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He'd come to regard the rising floodwater as a metaphor for his own life struggles, and now he looked depressed.
"In this world, it's who has money and who don't," said Brackett, 53, holding a beer in one hand and a newly purchased lottery ticket in the other. "I can't tell you how tired I am of being one of the ones who don't."
Brackett works as a security guard. He is raising four children and caring for a disabled friend on a salary of about $20,000 a year. Their two-bedroom apartment is near Eighth and Atlantic streets SE, in the Congress Heights neighborhood. That's in Ward 8, which is the District's equivalent of what had been the impoverished and predominantly black Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina wiped it off the map.
Brackett, a native Washingtonian, has an engineering degree from the old Washington Technical Institute. Asked how he ended up struggling as a security guard, he replied, "I've got a bullet fragment lodged in my head." He showed off a photograph of himself dressed in a military uniform. "Vietnam," he said. "I was disabled when I came back and never could get the help I needed to get back on my feet."
To some extent, the damage done by Katrina has brought a new look at the plight of the poor. But the focus remains hazy. Some black leaders charged that government neglect of poor black flood victims was just more evidence of racism in America.
But, from Brackett's perspective, the more serious offense was ignoring the poverty that made so many people vulnerable to the hurricane in the first place. He believes black and white leaders are responsible for that.
"I don't see race having anything to do with how poor people were treated," he said. "There were rich black folk in New Orleans, and they got away. I'm not trying to put anybody down. If I had money, I'd move away from this congestion, get me a nice house out in the woods, just like the rest. But this system seems geared towards only helping those who already have a piece of the pie."
He gave an example of how he had worked enough overtime to earn $2,000 during one pay period. But when he saw his check, half that amount had been eaten up by taxes.
"I had netted just enough to buy a little more milk and cereal for the kids," he said. "And who do they give the tax break to? People making a hundred thou plus. I don't see how the average working man can get ahead."
At any rate, national attention to such matters probably will be short-lived. The plight of the poor often is easier to ignore when so many others appear to be doing well. According to a study released last year by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the top 20 percent of the city's households has 31 times the average income of the bottom 20 percent. Local leaders say they are troubled by the disparity. But Brackett has yet to see any evidence of their concern.
What he has seen is a continuation of economic storms that have caused poverty to rise in some areas for the past three years. The high cost of housing, for instance, displaces low-income residents just as surely as a hurricane would. And the ill health associated with poverty, along with the violence that accompanies desperate quests for survival, amount to man-made tragedies that nature could hardly rival.
"I don't sit around wishing that I wasn't black," he said. "I just don't want to be poor."
As he spoke, friends dropped by with news about the neighborhood. One told of an elderly woman who had been shot when caught in a crossfire between rival groups of youths.
"They're still looking for who did it," a neighbor said. Another added, "You wonder if they really are looking, because you know if it had happened uptown, they would have caught the person."
Another came by to say that her mother had just died. "We didn't want them sticking all of those tubes in her," she said. Many others in the neighborhood wouldn't have had a choice. Medical care is expensive, and too few have the health insurance to cover it.
When the visitors were gone, Brackett sighed and pocketed his lottery ticket. "Moneywise, I'm just not making it. All I'm doing is trying to keep my head above water."
Under blue skies on a warm Labor Day weekend, his quiet storm raged on.