Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

American poverty is the true disaster

Just a day or two after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was reading a secondhand letter from a man who was a comfortable professional with a very nice home until the storm struck.

He recalled seeing a ragged woman in his neighborhood every day before that, pushing what little she owned in an old shopping cart. He admitted that he and his neighbors looked down on the woman - she didn't fit in with the nice neighborhood.

After the strike of Katrina, the man when back and found what was left of his nice home and luxury goods in New Orleans. And then the woman walked by, still with her same ragged cart.

No one knows how she managed to survive, but she did.

And then something struck the formerly comfortable man, wheeling what was left of his things out in cart - at that moment he and the woman he had looked down upon were equals.

Of course, insurance will eventually pay to rebuild for him; his family can probably afford to replace much of its goods.

The woman will be just as poor as ever when it is all said and done.

In our country, just as on that street, the poor are invisible. There is no reason to expect that they will be rescued by the same system that never cared that much even before the storm. They don't make campaign contributions. When Katrina hit, no one really even thought to evacuate the homeless.

We see the pictures of poor wretched souls in the wake of the hurricane, but what may not dawn on us, is that some of those we see were probably just as poor and wretched before it.

The President and every politician able to find access to a TV camera will pledge to appoint commissions and investigate what went wrong in the response. I wonder if any will pledge to discover what the future actually holds for the poor of our country, who we try so mightily to see right through.

When you live in a fairly prosperous place like Iowa, you can pretty much live your life without stepping over anyone on the sidewalk, without admitting that people sleep in cardboard or shelters, or that there are places where ragged children sleep on falling-apart mattresses on the front steps of tenement houses.

Katrina ripped our comfortable consciousness as hard as it hit the Gulf Coast. We couldn't look away, and it will be damned hard to go back and pretend it isn't there.

Nearly a fourth of all the people in that hurricane-riddled region lived below poverty level before the storm swept away what little they had, if anything. One in every six children in Louisiana live in such abject poverty that they are without some of the basic needs. Cleaning up storm damage and repairing levees won't fix that.

There are more than a few families in Buena Vista County in that same fix, forty years after this nation's leaders declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America" (Lyndon Johnson, 1964). There are kids who still won't have coats.

The kind of images we see from the poor of the Katrina zone fit our idea of what a destitute village in deep Africa might look like, not conditions for human beings in our own rich country.

I think it is wonderful that local children seem to be leading the way, giving their allowances and their book bags for children with nothing who are being relocated to new schools for a time. I'm sorely afraid that their generation will inherit the poverty issue still unsolved, just as ours did.

Is it impossible to eliminate hunger, homelessness, unemployment and poverty right here at home? I'm not certain about that, but I'm pretty sure that after what we have seen in recent weeks, we won't be able to pretend any more.

The system failed these people before the hurricane, during the hurricane and just after the hurricane. I wonder if it will fail them once again...


When Penneys pulled out of Storm Lake with little consideration for its people and none for the future of a community that had served it well, it showed no faith in Storm Lake's future.

Young businesspeople Mike Kohler and Molly Wilson, thankfully, have plenty.

They have opened a beautiful new version of their Sugar Bowl store in the Penneys site that had been vacant for a long while. I've followed their progress as they labored long into each night, and the store is a showplace in and out that should be a source of pride to Storm Lake and an attraction for our friends from outside.

It is exactly what we need - entrepreneurial spirit from within our own community - and a downtown that returns to its charms as a center of retail variety and ingenuity.

Just as good, the move creates no new hole on Lake Avenue - Bruce Kurtz moved his clothing enterprise into the former Sugar Bowl site.

On day the large corporations like Sears and Penneys make come to regret their past decisions to abandon their roots in rural America for those big swanky malls.

One more reason to shop with the local people who have believed in and invested in our communities when you can.

If you haven't seen the new Sugar Bowl, I'll bet Molly and Mike and the staff will be waiting with a smile.

If you see them, tell them thanks... for keeping the faith.