A Story of Disasters, Poverty Myths, and the Birth of the Poverty Industry

“It’s going to all be private enterprise before it’s over… They’ve got the expertise. They’ve got the resources.” ~Billy Wagner, emergency management chief for the Florida Keys

Canada spent $5.8 billion toward International assistance efforts in 2015.  These tax-payer dollars went to helping the poor with disaster relief, food aid, and military assistance. Despite the billions spent, however, many communities remain poor. The question is, “Why?”

Aid programs can harm more than they help.  Poverty seems to increase rather than decrease.[1]  The poor are often blamed for program failures. They are judged to be lazy and irresponsible. Lack of ‘proper’ education is seen as a primary reason the poor remain poor.  It becomes the responsibility of ‘more knowledgeable’ people to take care of communities incapable of taking care of themselves.

Northern_Uganda_Africa3_034

Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

There are several prevalent myths regarding the poor. These myths have influenced public policy for hundreds of years. The most important myths include:

(1) The poor are lazy.

(2) The poor are drug addicts.

(3) The poor are uneducated.

(4) The poor are criminals.

(5) The poor will always be poor.

Current poverty reduction programs rely largely on these five myths.  It seems little has changed over the last hundred years!  The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 illustrates how these myths influence financial aid and poverty reduction programs.

One of the hardest hit areas during Hurricane Katrina was the Ninth Ward, located in New Orleans.  For more information, check out this link: http://archive.oah.org/special-issues/katrina/Landphair.html

800px-New_Orleans_Wards_1-11_Augustus_Mitchell_map

1870s Map of New Orleans. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Prior to 2005, the Ninth Ward had become a place of unique culture and community.  By the late 1800s, over 17,000 people lived in the Ward.  This was a neighborhood which encouraged collaboration and mutual aid.  The geography of this area also served to separate and isolate the space from the rest of New Orleans. This isolation was increased in 1918, when the city constructed a new industrial canal.  Many officials thought this canal would promote economic growth.  The canal ran through the middle of the Ninth Ward, because officials saw the space as “uninhabited”.  This canal created two separate spaces which were divided by class and race.  Poor, mostly African-American families remained in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Wealthier white families moved into St. Bernard’s Parish on the other side of the canal.

New_Orleans_17th_Street_Canal_filling

Canal dividing lower and upper Ninth Ward. Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

By 2003, the media listed the lower Ninth Ward as “The murder capital of the murder capital” in the U.S.  The Ward was a “dangerous backwater pockmarked with blight where one’s life was always at risk”.  The people who lived there were “underclass” and “unwed, live-off-the-dole welfare mothers”. In short, the residents of the lower Ninth Ward were lazy, drug-addicted criminals who lacked proper education or will to help themselves. The five poverty myths were in full play.

After Hurricane Katrina, many city and State officials discussed the future of the Ninth Ward.  Col Terry Ebbert (Department of Homeland Security) said,

“There’s nothing out there that can be saved at all”.

The lower Ninth Ward was built on unstable flood plains, and officials discouraged rebuilding there.  The wealthier St. Bernard suburbs were allowed to rebuild, even though they lived in the same flood plain, however. After the mayor announced that the cost of rebuilding would be the responsibility of residents, it was clear to many that race and poverty were primary variables in recovery efforts.  Instead of being helped after the disaster, the lower Ninth Ward community was marginalized, segregated, and stigmatized.  Many residents felt they were victims of discrimination based on race and class.

Low9JustAintRight1

Source: www.wikipedia.org

Even more importantly, the government transferred much of their power and responsibility for helping to private industry.  Author Naomi Klein calls this phenomenon “Disaster Capitalism”.[2]  Klein feels that Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of the problems the poverty industry has created.  In a Time Magazine interview, she explains that the government betrayed the poorest people of America.  Government aid dollars remained unspent, and private industry was allowed to choose who they helped.  Profits became the driving force behind disaster relief.[3]

BrokenPromises_JohnFekner

Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

In New Orleans, people who could afford to pay for the ‘service’ were rescued first.  The poor remained on roof-tops and in buildings with no food, water, or power.  Residents who could afford to pay quickly recovered. People in the lower Ninth Ward still do not have adequate housing!  Meanwhile, tax dollars dedicated to disaster relief remain unspent.

No_Loitering_Banksy

Banksy art in lower Ninth Ward.  Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

Hurricane Katrina is one example of how poverty myths and the poverty industry undermine the success of current poverty reduction programs.  Next week, I will take a closer look at the Poverty Industry, and how it is adversely affecting the global poor.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the Invisible, Visible!

KolkataFlowerMarket

Source: www.en.wikipedia.org

[1] Sanderson, S. 2005. Poverty and Conservation: The New Century’s “Peasant Question?” World Development. 33(2). 323-32.

[2][2] http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine/resources/disaster-capitalism-in-action/tags/hurricane%2Bkatrina

[3] http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1666221,00.html

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