The recent hurricanes wrought havoc on families and communities across the Gulf Coast and poignantly revealed how the debilitating effects of poverty persist across the country. The President has wisely proposed asset-based ideas as the core of his policy response—a urban homesteading act to encourage the ownership of land and homes, a Gulf opportunity zone to foster business ownership, and worker recovery savings accounts for job training and education. While insufficient in their scope, these proposals identify a promising path for federal policy efforts.
After the federal government responds to the immediate needs of those affected, a primary goal of rebuilding should be to assist evacuees build up long-term savings and assets as a means of reconstructing their financial lives. But the President should not lose this moment to provide a coherent and far-reaching strategy to address poverty. Poverty, such as that which was on display in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, remains a national affliction, and it has been on the rise since 2000. Even by the Census Bureau’s outdated measures, 37 million Americans—including one in four blacks and one in three black children—are now living in poverty. And since initial surveys indicate that more than half of the evacuees do not plan to return to the Gulf region, how can we discriminate between the evacuees and the poor in their midst? In responding to Katrina, the federal government should assume the responsibility of severing the disquieting ties between race, poverty, and ownership. As recent events have shown, families without a stock of assets to draw upon in times of need are vulnerable to unexpected events. Their lack of a personal safety net makes them completely dependent on others. Policies that enable families to save and build up resources offer a means to move up and out of poverty. These policies will be most effective if they are delivered through a platform that is flexible and portable, one that works for evacuees regardless of where they re-settle as well as for others from the general population.
This brief offers a blueprint for a post-Katrina policy response to poverty in America. The proposals highlighted here are designed to address poverty by promoting the development of long-term savings and assets. Several proposals can be targeted to those directly affected by the Gulf Coast Hurricanes, while others can be implemented more broadly as a down payment on a renewed national commitment to strengthen anti-poverty efforts.
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