The Larger Shame

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

September 7, 2005

The wretchedness coming across our television screens from Louisiana has illuminated the way children sometimes pay with their lives, even in America, for being born to poor families.

It has also underscored the Bush administration's ongoing reluctance or ineptitude in helping the poorest Americans. The scenes in New Orleans reminded me of the suffering I saw after a similar storm killed 130,000 people in Bangladesh in 1991 - except that Bangladesh's government showed more urgency in trying to save its most vulnerable citizens.

But Hurricane Katrina also underscores a much larger problem: the growing number of Americans trapped in a never-ending cyclone of poverty. And while it may be too early to apportion blame definitively for the mishandling of the hurricane, even President Bush's own administration acknowledges that America's poverty is worsening on his watch.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported a few days ago that the poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. After declining sharply under Bill Clinton, the number of poor people has now risen 17 percent under Mr. Bush.

If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.

Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.

Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the U.S. ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio.

One of the most dispiriting elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans was the looting. I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery.

"No, you misunderstand," he said firmly. "These looters weren't Japanese. They were foreigners."

The reasons for this are complex and partly cultural, but one reason is that Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation's social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.

It's not just that funds may have gone to Iraq rather than to the levees in New Orleans; it's also that money went to tax cuts for the wealthiest rather than vaccinations for children.

None of this is to suggest that there are easy solutions for American poverty. As Ronald Reagan once said, "We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won." But we don't need to be that pessimistic - in the late 1990's, we made real headway. A ray of hope is beautifully presented in one of the best books ever written on American poverty, "American Dream," by my Times colleague Jason DeParle.

So the best monument to the catastrophe in New Orleans would be a serious national effort to address the poverty that afflicts the entire country. And in our shock and guilt, that may be politically feasible. Rich Lowry of The National Review, in defending Mr. Bush, offered an excellent suggestion: "a grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the Left in exchange for the Right's support for more urban spending." That would be the best legacy possible for Katrina.

Otherwise, long after the horrors have left TV screens, about 50 of the 77 babies who die each day, on average, will die needlessly, because of poverty. That's the larger hurricane of poverty that shames our land.