Blowback From Katrina

Bush tries a P.R. approach. Basic problems of health care, jobs, housing remain

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Bush's very general proposals last week for recovery of the hurricane-devastated states is PR. As everyone must know by now, Bush never changes his position on anything. He just keeps going—celebrating the government workers who fought the hurricane, commiserating with survivors, and calling on God. In New Orleans he threw in a few gimmicks, like a homesteading lottery and a Gulf Opportunity Zone. Serious measures to confront the needs of survivors are fixed in the conservative ideological agenda. It broadly calls for removal of the last vestiges of the New Deal social-welfare programs and institution of free-market, survival-of-the-fittest economics. A serious effort at recovery must directly address at least three basic issues:

Health care: This situation is horrendous. The only vehicle for delivering health care is Medicaid. But in today's aftermath of the storm, if you are, say, a 60-year-old man without income and suffering from heart disease, you would not be eligible for Medicaid assistance. The best you could do would be to try to find some emergency room or charity hospital to take you in on the theory that it might get paid back by the government in the future.

To qualify for Medicaid you must fit into several narrow categories: be 65 or older, seriously disabled, a child, or a parent of a child on Medicaid. Poverty isn't the sole determining factor. The National Governors Association is asking the government to suspend these categories and make Medicaid available to every hurricane victim on a temporary basis, and the Senate, in a bipartisan move, is readying legislation to do that. But the White House is balking, refusing to drop the categories and insisting that each state come to Washington to negotiate a backroom waiver deal. Last week, the White House negotiated such a deal with Texas that maintained the categories the governors want removed. Because FEMA has not promised to reimburse states taking in evacuees, both Texas and Florida have begun denying benefits to them. That is a particular hardship for the many mothers with small children among the thousands of stranded victims. Some states do provide benefits. Whether you get covered depends on what state you are dumped into. Conservative Republicans have been trying to gut Medicaid for years, and they are wary of any foot-in-the-door maneuver. Still, the Senate may well enact this legislation. Then it's up to the conservative Republicans in the House led by Tom DeLay.

Fire and water: New Orleans resident Raymond Dubernay wades to safety as a house blazes away on September 4
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Fire and water: New Orleans resident Raymond Dubernay wades to safety as a house blazes away on September 4

Unemployment insurance: Many people along the Gulf Coast were without jobs before the storm, and the prospects over the next year are iffy. A building boom may produce local jobs, or it may result in importing workers from elsewhere. Louisiana had a 6.1 percent unemployment rate before Hurricane Katrina hit, and now hundreds of thousands are out of work. According to Labor Department statistics, 10,000 people in the affected region filed last week for unemployment benefits. Newsday reports, "The nation could lose as many as 400,000 jobs through the end of this year because of the destructive storm, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office."

If the government doesn't move fast to help Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana by refinancing their unemployment insurance trust funds, these hard-pressed states are likely to cut unemployment benefits overall and raise business taxes, worsening the situation, according to analysts with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Bush's remedy for unemployment is to drop wages. He signed an executive order that lets states pay substandard wages for cleanup and repair work. Wages in Louisiana are already 19 percent below the national average. In Mississippi, average wages are $586 a week, 28 percent below the national average.

Housing: FEMA is not a housing agency, and its past experience with disaster relief in this sector revolves around small-scale provisioning of trailers, roof repairs, and help in paying mortgages. Bush now promotes the idea that victims can live on contracted cruise liners tied up in the New Orleans harbor. The most direct way to provide housing for hundreds of thousands of people is through existing Section 8 provisions. Under this program, the government pays landlords the rent for qualifying families. There are perhaps 100,000 housing vouchers already approved. But Congress has never funded them, so they are useless. Bush would have to take an active role in pushing for this funding.

In his speech last Thursday night, the president revived a perennial proposal for government assistance in the form of homesteading. In this case, evacuees could enter a lottery for vacant federal land. If you win the lottery, then you would have to demonstrate you had income to pay the mortgage on a home—impossible for most of these people.

The right-wingers are worried about overspending for the hurricane and somehow getting the country back into a New Deal frame of mind. They need not worry. The proposals above are short-term. As for paying for the recovery: Why not cancel, or at least defer, two tax cuts scheduled to take effect in January that offer no help for middle-class or poor people. For those making $1 million or more, the tax savings would be in the neighborhood of $130,000.

More slick maneuvering

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