Charity Nation

Last week I wrote that in the past two years more than a million American have volunteered to help restore the Gulf Coast, yet they aren’t making much of a dent. Today Douglas Brinkley writes in the Washington Post:

Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.

They arrive in the city’s Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.

After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.

Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city’s long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn’t President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government’s participation in the rebuilding?

And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?

Eventually, the volunteers’ altruism turns to bewilderment and finally to outrage. They’ve been hoodwinked. The stalled recovery can’t be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I’ve concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine.

This is a really good article, so please read it all. He concludes that the Bush Administration is deliberately discouraging people from re-populating New Orleans, although he doesn’t draw the conclusion that Digby and I and others have drawn — that the goal is to create a reliably Republican voting block in New Orleans by dispersing the mostly black and mostly poor parts of the population, which mostly votes for Democrats. We’ll see how that turns out in the future.

Brinkley thinks the goal is to prevent people from moving back to areas below sea level that are likely to be flooded again, especially since the feds don’t want to pay to erect better flood protection. That may be part of it, too. And it isn’t just New Orleans that’s not getting fixed. There are people still waiting for help in Alabama and Mississippi as well.

Whatever the reason for government non-action, the Katrina experience ought to put to rest the idea that private charities can replace government welfare, disaster relief and other “safety net” programs. I say ought to; empiricism hasn’t yet stopped a rightie from believing whatever he wants to believe. But for the rest of us, the Katrina experience reveals that sometimes you really do need government. It’s fine for volunteers to cook soup, clear brush, or help re-roof a house. But if electricity and sewage services are never restored to that house, what’s the point?

This web document, which appears to have been written before the Bush II Administration, asks us to imagine what might have happened had there been no federal response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Well, now we don’t have to imagine. (But speaking of Hurricane Andrew — George H.W. “Poppy” Bush was president in 1992, and the federal government was slow to respond then, also. Maybe the Bush family carries a “don’t respond to hurricanes” gene.)

Righties like private charities because they don’t want to pay taxes for “welfare.” The Bush Administration likes private charities so much, it diverts tax dollars to them. Michelle Goldberg wrote in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (pp. 107-108):

The diversion of billions of taxpayer dollars from secular social service organizations to such sectarian religious outfits has been one of the most underreported stories of the Bush presidency. Bush’s faith-based initiatives have become a spoils system for evangelical ministries, which are now involved in everything from prison programs and job training to teenage pregnancy prevention, supplanting the safety net that was supposed to catch all Americans. As a result of faith-based grants, a growing number of government-funded social service jobs explicitly refuse to hire Jews, gay people, and other undesirables; such discrimination is defended by the administration and its surrogates in the name of religious freedom. Bringing the disposed to Jesus Christ has become something very close to a domestic policy goal of the United States government. And all this has happened with far less notice or public debate than attended the removal of Terri Schaivo’s feeding tube or the halftime baring of Janet Jackson’s breast.

Goldberg writes that the term “compassionate conservative” comes from the title of a book by Marvin Olasky. This New York Times article from 2000 by Alison Mitchell explains how Olasky influenced Bush’s “thinking” on charity:

Mr. Rove also introduced Mr. Bush to Marvin Olasky—a proponent of 19th century-style charity over the entitlements of the welfare state—whom the governor calls “compassionate conservatism’s leading thinker” in a foreword to Mr. Olasky’s newest book.

Those introductions amounted to the first building blocks of the “compassionate conservative” platform Mr. Bush is running on today: tax incentives that he predicts will lead to an explosion of charitable giving; an emphasis on using religious institutions to deal with poverty, drug abuse and other social problems and a pledge to “usher in the responsibility era,” to replace the notion that “if it feels good, do it.”

The core concept of this platform is that while government has a responsibility to the needy, it does not have to provide the services itself. This approach can be seen in everything from Mr. Bush’s proposals for a tax credit to help people buy health insurance to his call to divert some Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.

I like the part about “19th century-style charity.” In early 19th century America, local laws usually made some provision to care for the indigent. Generally this worked well enough, especially in communities where everyone knew everyone else. As the nation became more urban and industrialized, and particularly with the great influx of immigrants, the old system proved inadequate. In the latter part of the 19th century private charities, most of them religious, sprang up by the tens of thousands, and for a time it was common for state and local governments to give cash grants to such charities to do social work rather than create public bureaucracies. How well this worked is debatable. African Americans often were excluded from receiving help, for example. In any event some major disasters — notably the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression — pretty much swamped the system that Olasky wants to go back to.

Although the hard-core Right vowed to dismantle the New Deal from its beginnings, as I’ve written before most Americans were fine with the New Deal, including Social Security. And in the 1950s they were fine with the GI Bill and mortgage subsidies that helped the Greatest Generation become way more affluent than their parents had been. Nor do I remember a great hue and cry from the general population against Medicare when it was created in 1965. However, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were perceived by white Americans as tax money being spent mostly on inner city blacks. (This was not the whole story, but white poverty in America tends to be rural and invisible.) All of a sudden white middle-class America swung Right and discovered the virtues of self-reliance. All those right wingers who had crusaded against the “welfare state” finally had a big enough audience to swing elections.

But in the 1960s white middle-class Americans thought of themselves as economically invincible, thanks in part to such New Deal reforms as the FSLIC (which would become insolvent during the Savings and Loan Crisis, which was brought about by right-wing faith in deregulation and free markets, but that’s getting ahead of the story). Going back to Depression conditions was unthinkable to a middle class American then.

But I’m not sure it’s quite so unthinkable now. It ain’t the 1960s any more, and I’m not just talking about patchouli oil. Middle class Americans don’t feel so invincible today. And I don’t think American whites are, on the whole, as dog-whistle racist as they were 40 years ago. I suspect Americans are less interested in shrinking government and drowning it in a bathtub than they used to be.

19 thoughts on “Charity Nation

  1. I hope you continue writing about this, Barbara. The federal government’s attitude toward the poor and non-white (and by reflection, our own – through the actions, or lack of, of our representatives in Congress) – is blatant and uncaring. Apparently, too, government thinks that a few bows to Christian Charity will enable it to get away with neglect and abandonment.

  2. In his book “Big Lies”, Joe Conason wrote in chapter 9, “Faith, Charity and the Mayberry Machiavellis”:
    “A simple statistic demonstrates how ridiculous it is to think that private charity can replace the public sector in maintaining the social contract. According to a study prepared several years ago by the Century Foundation, the total assest of America’s 34,000 foundations (not the annual income from their endowments) add up to around 10 percent of current government expenditures for social welfare and related domestic programs. There is no reason to believe that ratio has changed much, particulary after plunging equity values decimated the foundation portfolios. Charitable groups lack the resources to sustain the nation’s poor at even the most minimal level of survivial-let alone to help them escape poverty.”
    Joe Conason’s book came out in 2003 & the Century Foundation study was already several years old.

  3. When you do write about the S&L Crisis, don’t forget Neil Bush’s involvement in Silverado.

  4. Maybe the Bush family carries a “don’t respond to hurricanes” gene.

    Definitely. I can still remember the exchange between Bush 41 and a reporter after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Paraphrasing now:

  5. My comment, continued from above (technical difficulties, apparently):

    Reporter: Mr. President, what is your response to the hurricane victims who are criticizing FEMA for being too slow to respond?

    Bush 41: Well, they’ve been up all week and are under a lot of stress, so I can understand that they’re cranky.

    Kinda sounds like “Old Bar in the Astrodome,” doesn’t it? (To use Darmok-speak.)

  6. Middle class Americans don’t feel so invincible today. And I don’t think American whites are, on the whole, as dog-whistle racist as they were 40 years ago.

    Racism has undoubtedly been the cornerstone of popular support for Republicans on the national level for the past 40 years. And it actually predates the 1960’s by quite a bit, but it is accurate to say that many otherwise Democratic-voting people have been swayed by Republicans’ race-baiting appeals in a decisive way since the Goldwater/Nixon/Reagan campaigns and “southern strategy” realignments.

    Nevertheless, during this same time period, the social acceptability of overt expressions of racism among middle- and working-class Americans has shrunk enormously. Which makes me wonder if the marketing phrase “compassionate conservative” is, in addition to being a wink to the religious right, wasn’t also a way to evoke that Reagan-type sanitized racism. “We know whites are superior. We show it by being above all that race talk–that’s for liberals and Jesse Jackson. Look, we even have a black Secretary of State!” And then, of course, once elected they go on all kinds of imperialistic rampages.

    As for middle class feelings of invincibility–middle classes are always insecure. Socially and economically, they are vulnerable, and they (we) know it. But I think mainstream people were more optimistic in the 60’s. They felt confidence in the possibilities of what this world could be, if not the reality of it.; they were able to dream. We’ve become a lot more nihilistic since then.

  7. There are unspoken assumptions in the wingnut meme regarding social spending that “welfare” created poverty and that charities can do a better job of caring for the poor. Yeah, those two ideas are mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t deter wingnuts from believing both.

    First of all, if there were no poor before welfare, what were charities for? Secondly, if charities were doing such a good job before the government took over the job, why was there a problem to be fixed?

    Rush Limbaugh would explain that “bureaucrats” created the problem so they could have jobs taking care of it.

  8. While I bow to no one in my willingness to attribute nefarious and racist motivations to the Bush Misadministration, they may be more motivated by a cost/benefit calculation.
    Efforts to fix the levees and to restore the Mississippi delta wetlands that once protected them from storm surge will surely cost many billions. If the climate change scenarios I’m seeing come to pass, all of New Orleans is likely a lost cause without an effort an order of magnitude larger yet — that is, it’s possible, maybe even likely, that the US could sink fifty or a hundred billion in restoring and protecting New Orleans, only to have the effort prove futile in the event when a meter-or-more rise in sea level and increased frequency and strength of Gulf hurricanes sweeps the remnants of the delta away.
    So it may be simple racism, or it may be racism informing a decision that there’s no use throwing money at a lost cause.

    I sure wish W would figure that “no use throwing money at a lost cause” thing in Iraq …

  9. they may be more motivated by a cost/benefit calculation.

    That’s more or less what Brinkley says, but if that is the case the Bushies should come out and say so and not keep people’s lives on hold forever.

  10. Responding to #8 and #9.. If there is no good economic sense to rebuilding the lower 9th ward, then the government has an obligation to assist in relocation and housing for the displaced. I seem to remember ‘Love Canal’? which was toxic and the governement paid for relocation assistance. The situation in the lower 9th was not toxic, but it was dangerous and the tragedy the result of failure of the local, state & federal governemnt to anticipate & prepare.

  11. Re the S & L crisis. I aint buying. I remeber clearly that BEFORE the S & L bailout, the banks – not part of the S & Ls started a campaign to have the taxpayer bail them out on bad loans that the banks claim the feds encouraged or pressured them to mail … including loans to 3rd-world countries, and they wanted to throw other bad loans into the bag because having to write off bad loans that the banks were carying on the books would be bad for the overall economy. This was BEFORE the S & L crash, and the dog would not hunt. Congress was faced with an overwhelming disapproval from voters to bail out banks, so the idea went away as abruptly as if a switch was turned off.

    A few years later, the S & L crisis.. just happened. The same loans (by description) that the banks could not get the taxpayer to underwrite, had materialized in the unregulated S & L world. Guess who paid???!! And no one has ever dusted off the bad loans to see that they ORIGINATED in the banking world and were exchanged into the unregulated S & L world for cash.. which saved the banks from expensive defaults.

    We were had – and if anyone with serious journalistic credentials wants to investigate, will they please make me the beneficiary of their life insurance?

  12. About Faith Based Initiatives – I don’t just want these blatantly unconstitutional programs stopped, I want the money back. In my book, this is just another means of theft for the Bush Kleptocracy.

  13. True, however the way the administration runs everything, political calculations are also first and foremost with them. They are going to help a Republican-run and dominated state like Mississippi before they come to the aid of a Democratic state like Louisiana.

  14. They are going to help a Republican-run and dominated state like Mississippi before they come to the aid of a Democratic state like Louisiana.

    I understand they aren’t doing much for Alabama and Mississippi either.

  15. #11– However, Mississippi is pretty much in the Republicans’ pocket no matter what. It’s about as far from a battleground state as you can get. Sure, they want to “send the message” that they will help them out, but I don’t think the Republicans think they’re in any danger of losing their precious votes there. What is Mississippi going to do, vote for Hillary?

    The G.O.P will probably gain Louisiana, at least for the short term, but they’ve lost so many other swing states that it won’t help them.
    They’re just going to solidify their historical shift into a regional party. And seriously, their lack of response to Katrina will hurt all over the county. Eventually even (ironically enough) in the states that suffered the direct damage.

  16. my above comment is actually directed toward #10, whose identity seems to have shifted while I was typing.

  17. Whatever the reason for government non-action [the article suggests rebuilding below sea level in hurricane zone may be dangerous], the Katrina experience ought to put to rest the idea that private charities can replace government welfare, disaster relief and other “safety net” programs. I say ought to; empiricism hasn’t yet stopped a rightie from believing whatever he wants to believe [for instance that subsidizing poor people into flood and hurricane prone housing is a bad thing]. But for the rest of us, the Katrina experience reveals that sometimes you really do need government [to move poor people back into areas where they are in constant danger of flooding and hurricanes].

    There you are all fixed.

  18. [to move poor people back into areas where they are in constant danger of flooding and hurricanes].

    There you are all fixed.

    Once again — if that’s the plan, then the Bush Administration should forthrightly say that, and then help people relocate. And then the volunteers can stop wasting their time rebuilding houses no one is going to move back into.

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