WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Bush’s vague promise from New Orleans on Thursday night to lead the nation in “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen” shied well clear of any specific action. Some estimates put the federal burden at $300 billion dollars, but the government isn’t set up to spend it well.
Disaster recovery in any case requires quick, comprehensive
health care, extended uniform unemployment insurance, and massive housing. Facing a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, he offered none of these. A few more doctors and nurses, a few more unemployment checks, a few trailers here and there won’t get the job done.
Instead, Bush offered a slew of gimmicky projects
such as yet another tax free zone—the Gulf Opportunity
Zone; worker recovery accounts, for job training and
child care, that sound very much like the account
schemes Republicans have struggled to get passed
as part of their privatization of Social Security; and
the urban homesteading on vacant federal lands—probably of dubious value.
FEMA is not prepared to provide housing on the
scale demanded by the Hurricane Katrina. In the past it has
helped pay mortgages, fix roofs and provide
trailers—nothing on the scale now needed. Housing
vouchers that pay landlords for the cost of modest
apartments are probably the best way to go. But while
HUD has approved numerous vouchers, there is not
enough money to actually fund the program.
The employment assistance to New Yorkers after
9-11 turned into a hopeless mess. If the government
doesn’t move fast to help Alabama, Mississippi, and
Louisiana, these hard-pressed states are likely to cut
unemployment benefits overall and raise business
taxes, worsening the situation, not making it better,
according to analysts with the Center for Budget and Policy
Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
The nation has no health-care system and no real
health-care policy. The destruction of
hospitals and clinics along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans make the distribution of care a nightmare. Medicaid is the one operating
system. No matter how difficult, it simply must be made
to work for displaced people now. And this is no easy job, because the
administration has been trying to cut back on this
program ever since Bush got elected. Conservatives in
Congress—even now—look upon efforts to open up
Medicaid as just a foot in the door for the welfare
queens. As of today, there is some hope the Senate will embrace a
broad Medicaid expansion, albeit a temporary one, to appease right-wing ideologues.
Many people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are without jobs, and overall the employment prospects in this region are dubious at
best. Louisiana had a 6.1 percent
unemployment rate before the storm hit, and now
hundreds of thousands of 1.9 million workers are out
of work. According to Labor Department statistics, last
week 10,000 people filed for unemployment insurance in
the hurricane region. 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.”
Bush now has 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.
Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuga, Ali Syed