Bush’s Katrina Plan Ignores 500,000 Displaced Children

Posted September 16, 2005 at 4:22pm

Compassionate conservatism is back, as part of President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But his Thursday night speech ignored one group especially afflicted: children.

The latest U.S. Census report shows that 12.5 percent of all Americans live below the poverty line, up for the fourth straight year, but that 18.4 percent of children are poor, including 33.6 percent of African-American children.[IMGCAP(1)]

Louisiana is the state with the highest percentage of children in poverty, an astounding 30 percent. The figure for New Orleans approaches 40 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Fully 75 percent of Louisiana children are categorized as living in “low income” households, below 200 percent of poverty income.

Ideologically speaking, Bush’s Katrina recovery effort is an amalgam — partly “compassionate conservative,” partly New Deal-style public works and partly boons to Bush’s business-Republican constituency.

Whether he can repair his tenuous political standing with the help of “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen” remains unclear.

It is clear that the effort gives him a new opportunity to exercise leadership in a crisis. But both Democratic and Republican skeptics are demanding he pay for the project either by canceling proposed tax cuts or by postponing other domestic spending. He seems disinclined to do either.

To his credit, Bush did address the race-and-poverty aspect of the Katrina disaster in his Thursday night speech, acknowledging that “deep, persistent poverty in the Gulf region … has roots in a history of racial discrimination.”

His answer was to revive a series of “compassionate conservative” proposals largely ignored since the administration became preoccupied with tax cuts, social-program spending restraint and foreign policy.

His lead initiatives are designed to help poor people participate in a capitalist economy: a Gulf Opportunity Zone where tax breaks will encourage the creation of small businesses, Worker Recovery Accounts to help evacuees train for better jobs, and an Urban Homestead Act to give poor people a chance to own their homes.

In addition, Bush characteristically pointed to the nonprofit “armies of compassion” that are helping evacuees, including the effort headed by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, plus another being mounted by the USA Freedom Corps, an office Bush created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

What Bush neglected to mention was that 500,000 children have been displaced by Katrina. The Education Department has announced that No Child Left Behind requirements will be relaxed in school districts accepting large numbers of evacuees, but other plans are in doubt.

Democrats, while generally responding to Bush in a harshly partisan manner, have correctly protested that this is a poor time to cut Medicaid benefits, as Congressional Republicans are proposing, since displaced poor families need medical care.

One initiative that Bush might have mentioned is Katrina’s Kids, an effort being organized by the USA Freedom Corps to coordinate voluntary agency services in communities where evacuee children are concentrated.

The initiative combines efforts by United Way organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Congress of Mayors and other groups to provide displaced children with five areas of service — mentors or tutors, health checkups and immunizations, after-school activities and day care, support at school and opportunities to volunteer.

A coalition of groups that serve youth also is pushing a longer-term effort to pass the Federal Youth Coordination Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.). It would have the executive branch rationalize the 150 separate federal programs serving youth, at a cost of nearly $50 billion a year.

The sheer size of the Katrina rebuilding effort should be a spur to overall growth in the economy, which could help Bush politically once the hurricane’s immediate shocks are past.

He said the federal government would pay most of the costs while local governments do the planning and local workers get the jobs — a formula straight out of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In another demonstration of what’s sometimes called “big government conservatism,” Bush called for unspecified “greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces” in handling major disasters.

At the same time, Bush is calling for easing environmental regulations for the oil and gas industry and already has suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, freeing contractors from paying prevailing wage rates. No-bid contracts also will please business constituents.

Politically, Bush’s speech is a step toward repairing the hits he’s taken from Iraq casualties, high gas prices and Katrina missteps.

He was wise to accept responsibility for federal failures; it’s a step that’s proved helpful to politicians from John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs to Attorney General Janet Reno after the 1993 Waco disaster.

But, as a second-term president with waning powers of persuasion, what counts for Bush is whether his plans actually deliver the goods, from rebuilding New Orleans to taking care of the kids.