I rarely send email that I ask you to forward but I am asking now. Please forward this or write something yourself. I think that it is important for us to help people understand where the folks who have been most affected on the Gulf Coast started and put the government’s response into some perspective. I am going to mention demographic data for New Orleans residents. Know that the numbers are worse for people living outside of New Orleans in even poorer areas. The media have been focused on showing images of lawlessness and looting. While we know these situations occur, pay attention to how much of the video is repetitive showing the same individuals over and over. It is up to us to help tell the whole story.
I believe that most of you know that my new husband, a public school educator by calling and training, was mobilized by the Army Reserve and sent to Iraq for whatever the story happens to be this week. While I support Ed in his desire to meet his commitment to the Army, my soul has wrestled with our occupation in Iraq. I could rest more easily with his mobilization if we were not consistently lied to about why we are there and how "well things are going".
During the last few days as I have watched and prayed for the folks in New Orleans, while witnessing our inability or unwillingness to respond effectively to a disaster here at home, I have become more and more angry. Why aren't our troops here to help with this situation and why aren't the resources we do have being used more efficiently and rapidly?
For me the conclusion is obvious, because those most affected are predominantly poor and black. Our government knew the hurricane was coming. They also knew the demographics of the region. Federal studies report that 28 percent of New Orleans residents live below the federal poverty line. This number is not an accurate representation of the folks most impacted because it is based on census data. In economically depressed areas of the inner city, where most residents are locked into a vicious cycle of poverty and are alienated from the socioeconomic mainstream of society, there is a relatively higher undercount rate among young Black males and minor children. Some young Black males who become "invisible" and children of at-risk inner city families are undercounted due to dispersed living arrangements created by family poverty, family dissolution, public service dependency, inferior schools, and inadequate health and dental care.
In a study conducted by Louisiana State University, in an inner city area where most of the residents are low income and rent rather than own their homes, we get information that demonstrates the stark contrast to the affluence of the New Orleans tourist area, which engulfs it. The most impacted areas are almost 100 percent Black and many are located adjacent to or include low-income public housing project. Many characteristics that are typically associated with a high poverty area are present including, deteriorated substandard housing, high population density, a large proportion of rental houses, a high crime rate, a high poverty rate, family dislocations, and undeveloped community services.
More than 65 percent of the residents of these neighborhood were either over 60 or less than 20 years old (the dependent population). The percentage of persons in female-headed households with no husband present (9.2 percent) was higher than the citywide average of 7.2. Persons over 65 represented 13.0 percent of total households, compared to 11.7 percent for the city. The average income for most inner city New Orleans neighborhoods was about $10,650.
These people were already living on the edge. What resources could they have had to evacuate? How is a family with this level of household income supposed to have cars or money to travel to safer places, and to sustain themselves for God only knows how long? People who are this poor cannot afford motel rooms and their friends and family are generally no better off.
Now they are going to take folks to Houston. This is a city with its own large unemployment, poor healthcare and serious poverty issues. A city in a state with little commitment to poor people. A city in the state that was formerly run by the same incompetent administrator now at the helm of the country.
So we ask what can we do? Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a day of prayer: "As we face the devastation wrought by Katrina, as we search for those in need, as we comfort those in pain and as we begin the long task of rebuilding, we turn to God for strength, hope and comfort." She urged residents in her state to ask, "that God give us all the physical and spiritual strength to work through this crisis and rebuild."
I am a person of faith and prayer and know through God that all things are possible. I am also a practical Christian who believes in the Social Gospel of Jesus Christ and knows that "prayer" can take many forms. We must hold our church and government leaders across the country accountable. The black church has to be called to step up and take care of God's people. What is the mission fund for, if not for this situation? The white evangelical church has been preaching reconciliation and restoration for years. Here is an opportunity to put your money where your mouth, and where you say your heart are. Now is the time to call and/or write your Congress persons and governors. Let them know that you are registered voters and that you are watching and that you will remember when it is time to write a check or go to the polls. Congress can put pressure on the President.
And finally write a check yourselves. We can all miss a dinner out or a few Cappuccinos. There are already several ethical organizations at work that can use our help. God has blessed us with so much more than those from whom we descend ever had. The only means we have to return that love is through the way that we love each other. He does not ask us to save the world; he just asks that we try. Can we really do any less?
Elizabeth “Liz” Wills is a community development consultant to faith and community based organizations. She participated in Harvard Divinity School’s Summer Leadership Institute in 1998.
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