Underclass Surfaces From Floodwaters

The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between “haves” and “have-nots.”

What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents — and most Jews — were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.

In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.

If you couldn’t recognize the half-submerged landmarks in the French Quarter, you would swear footage from New Orleans and beyond came right from Haiti or some other Third World country.

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released staggering new poverty data. The numbers show that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total to 37 million. Hunger rates in this country closely track the poverty index, and both numbers have seen steady increases for four years running. The Census Bureau also reported that income inequality is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.

So when natural disaster strikes, it is all too easy to predict who will bear the brunt of the devastation. It won’t be the high-flying corporate raiders and image-obsessed celebrities who typically occupy the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It will be the person who fixes your car, or who serves you lunch, or who takes care of your friend’s mother at the local old age home. These will be the people we read about, our new “celebrities of tragedy” — fellow citizens who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.

As these divisions become more evident from the images we have been waking up to, growing numbers of Americans are asking hard questions. They are moved, I hope, by the realization that we are witnessing the coming out of a national underclass, one that has long existed and can no longer be confined to the margins.

The recovery is already under way, although efforts to rebuild will take years and years. As we repair the cracks in the levees and begin the difficult work of restoring people’s lives, we will be remiss if we do not seize this moment to heal the fractures running deep through our society.

Through the act of rebuilding — and by that I mean rebuilding policies and values as well as levees — we have a chance to fashion a society that addresses inequality and cherishes the contributions of every individual. We ignore that opportunity at our own peril.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is among the organizations aiding hurricane relief efforts.