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Displaced poor likely to stay where they land

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BRIAN WATT: Hurricane Katrina cast a spotlight on the plight of the poor in New Orleans. Now as the Crescent City struggles to rebuild, commentator Robert Reich argues the needs of the poor have been ignored.

ROBERT REICH: Even though the national economy keeps growing, the number of impoverished Americans has not diminished.

About one out of four New Yorkers, for example, is living in poverty. New York’s mayor has appointed a commission to come up with ways to reduce that number.

Before Katrina hit, about one in four residents of New Orleans was also living in poverty. Today, New Orleans’ poverty rate is much lower. But that’s not because it did anything New York or any other city should try to emulate. New Orleans lowered its poverty rate by having a flood that wiped out the homes of its poor and then made it hard for them to ever come back.

More than half of the people who lived in New Orleans before Katrina have still not returned, especially the poor and they have no place to return to. Their former houses are in rubble. Housing projects are closed. Poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward are still devastated. Inexpensive housing, even rental housing, is hard to find.

It’s an old story, really. Areas of any town or city where the infrastructure is most ignored, like the Industrial Canal levee that burst on the morning of August 29 a year ago, have the lowest property values. So that’s where the poor live.

When there’s a flood or a leak of toxic wastes or any other calamity, these places are the first to become uninhabitable. Which means the poor often have to leave. And then the political and moral question is whether anyone cares enough to help them return and rebuild.

Sometimes cities actively try to get rid of their poorest citizens. Not long ago officials in Fall River, Massachusetts, tried to raze a low income housing project and not replace it with any other affordable housing. Other cities have been known to give the poor one-way bus tickets out of state.

But more often than not, it’s a matter of simply doing nothing. Last September, President Bush promised more than $60 billion for the first stages of getting New Orleans back on its feat. But he made that money contingent of the city of New Orleans developing a recovery plan. The mayor of New Orleans appointed a commission to do that, but nothing came of it.

A year after Katrina and there’s no plan to redevelop its poorest neighborhoods, no housing for the displaced, barely a trickle of money to help them.

And since the poor who used to live in New Orleans don’t have their own money to rebuild there, they’ll probably stay where they are now in Houston or Dallas or Birmingham or Jackson, Mississippi. At least until those cities figure out how to reduce their own poverty rates and send the poor somewhere else.

WATT: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In Los Angeles, I’m Brian Watt. Thanks for joining us and have a great day.

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