False starts and things that matter

As the rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina starts, so too do people start asking questions about what went wrong in New Orleans, and the lessons that should be learnt. Notwithstanding a huge global warming wakeup call, the main conclusion seems to be that the US failed spectacularly to protect its poor and black citizens. The Economist front page calls it “The Shaming of America”, and editorials everywhere are calling it wakeup call to the nation.

The problem, though, with wakeup calls is that they so seldom lead to any real change. An excellent editorial in today’s USA Today compares and contrasts Katrina’s wakeup call with another of 40 years ago — the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles. They were substantially more violent, but (insofar as I can tell as a foreigner) made affluent America aware of the depth of poverty and anger of the social and racial underclass of the country. The result? According to the USA Today editorial, poverty levels in Watts are actually higher today. And, of course, they weren’t the last race riots that LA was to see.

People seem very, very ineffectual at committing to and achieving big goals that almost everyone can, in principle, agree on. It would seem to me that getting rid of a systematic social underclass is something everyone can see is a good idea. (Though perhaps some particularly economically right-wing people might argue that society shouldn’t interfere with people’s responsibility to make their own way in life — thus ignoring all the evidence that the cycle of poverty is, indeed, a cycle. I’d be interested to hear reader’s thoughts on how many people might think this).

The problem is that these sorts of poverty-prevention programmes seem never to get the support they need to really succeed. On the other hand, MoveOn.org, or any of countless lobby groups on all sides of the political spectrum, can raise millions of dollars and have thousands of people on the streets and airwaves, within hours, for any of a number of contentious issues in the US. Mention supreme court nominations, or Iraqi exit strategies, or pension reform, or homosexual rights, and you’ll have armies of diehard activists and donors on both sides.

Now these are, indeed, very important issues, but it seems to me that it’s easy to raise money for these issues, where there is a vocal “other side”, and so where the two side’s money just cancels out and achieves almost nothing. Try to raise money for something that everyone can kind of agree with, and where there is no “other side” to get mad with, and suddenly it’s impossible to get any real interest going. You can see it already in MoveOn’s focus — arguing for a commission of enquiry to determine what went wrong, so that the Republicans in charge can get kicked out.

So my forlorn quest, and most challenging ever Exercise for the reader, is to find a way of building widespread enthusiasm and dedication for a worthwhile cause that doesn’t involve beating someone else; that isn’t a contest; and that will actually make the world a better place. Because all around the world, wakeup calls seem almost always to be followed by hitting the snooze button.

One thought on “False starts and things that matter

  1. You say “poverty-prevention programmes”. Are there any? Aren’t most programs aimed at reducing poverty? I agree that poverty is a cycle. But I don’t think we could do a one-time thing where we raise everyone out of poverty and then they’re out of the cycle. Our society/government is exceedingly efficient at putting people back into poverty.

    What is it to be poor? At this moment I have about 0 dollars. And yet I’m not poor. I guess there are several reasons. I have skills and my skills have a decent market value. Even if I was fired I wouldn’t be poor. What if I was fired and I had no car? Then I wouldn’t be able to find a job because I wouldn’t be able to get to one. And I couldn’t stay here because I couldn’t afford the rent. Of course Pasadena has some opportunities, so I probably could get a job that I could bus to. But I’m in Pasadena, with these opportunities, because I’m not poor.

    So I guess I answered my own questions. Reducing poverty really means a combination of giving people skills, ensuring that those skills have a fair market value, and ensuring people have the opportunity to use those skills. I’m not convinced that everyone can agree on doing the things that would make this happen. Can you see any ways of enacting these types of changes outside of legislation? Can you see any legislation that would do these things and that both sides can agree on?


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