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Of Bush, hurricane, poverty While president transformed Iraq, America's poor got poorer on his watch

Hurricane Katrina's ravaging of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular reminded us of nature's power, and man's hubris. Another storm, though quieter, eked out at the same time that caused barely a ripple. Yet the horrid impact of the first is tied closely to the second.

Well-meaning Republicans and Bush administration supporters wonder why blue state liberals don't see how President Bush's policies help America, from billions in tax cuts, to No Child Left Behind, to a reorganized national terrorism/disaster response apparatus, to an economy that booms below the Northern tier of states, to (Christian) faith-based initiatives.

Here's why: Beyond flooded houses and destroyed lives, the hurricane exposed nationally what New Orleans residents knew for years. Without cars, living in housing made affordable by its skimpiness, in jobs dependent on the volatile service sector, the city's poor would suffer disproportionately in a major storm. Poverty as a condition of their lives that day would make them unable to escape a storm of this magnitude and more vulnerable to its aftereffects.

When the storm hit, the city flooded -- as repeatedly predicted by scientists, government officials and the New Orleans Times-Picayune -- and after the sun came out, the world's television screens revealed the stark suffering. The victims left behind were almost entirely poor, sick, young, old or disabled, and most have black skin. But ask cops, doctors, nurses, clergy and other middle-class stalwarts who stayed to help how desperate they felt. There but for the grace of God -- and access to middle-class supports and protections -- go I.

Congressional hearings will sort out who failed on a disastrous scale -- Republicans in Washington or Democrats in Louisiana, or, most likely, both -- in this catastrophic flushing of a major American city down its own bowl. So what's this got to do with Bush? The quiet storm released late last month was the U.S. Census Bureau's annual report on poverty in this great nation, the one many Bush backers seem to find unassailable.

As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in the New York Times, the report showed 17 percent more people are now classified as poor than when Bush took office nearly five years ago. That's 1.1 million of your fellow Americans, many of whom surely have children serving in Iraq. They are working poor, the number of whom went down steadily under President Bill Clinton; they're people who can't earn enough money to get behind the unbreachable levee of middle-class stability.

How bad is this, really? A black child born in Washington, D.C., within sight of the White House, has nearly three times as great a chance of dying before his first birthday than a child born in Beijing. In hard numbers from the report, the 2002 mortality rate for infants in D.C. was 11.5 per thousand; it was 4.6 in Beijing.

Overall, America's infant mortality rate rose during Bush's presidency for the first time since 1958. Fewer American children receive basic immunizations and vaccinations than those in 80 or more other nations. Those miserable children and parents and grandparents you saw in New Orleans didn't just arrive on some overcrowded boat; and they weren't cast off from some horrific Third World economy; they are citizens too.

Would $200 billion and counting for an ill-conceived war in Iraq have helped improve the grim reality for America's poor? We'll never know. Did foolish Bush tax cuts designed to boost business and the nation's wealthiest people stimulate the economy in ways to help the destitute of New Orleans and other cities? What do you think? And none of that takes into account the economic impact yet to come nationally of higher gas prices and the loss of 400,000 jobs in the region.

Katrina ripped away buildings, lives, the very veneer of civility, and showed how easily and fast civilization can tank. What it exposed probably applies to most major American cities, and certainly to Buffalo. Five years of Bush administration policies made life worse for those least able to fend for themselves. That is shameful, and it should not have taken a hurricane for us to realize it, or do something about it. Despite Bush's sorry record, this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. All Americans need to work on this one. Our nation seems pretty good at declaring wars, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on drugs. How about a second one on poverty?

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