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Friday, September 08, 2017


Relief and partisanship

by Tom Sullivan

Hurricane Irma's crosshairs are square on Florida. Most of the state will feel its winds. Arriving on the heels of the $15 billion disaster relief package Congress just passed to help victims of Hurricane Harvey's unprecedented rains, Irma will have Florida knocking on doors on Capitol Hill by week's end.

Money will be forthcoming. Because it is Florida, after all. (29 GOP electoral college votes in 2016.) Like Texas, after all. (38 GOP electoral college votes in 2016.) New Jersey? Congress argued about aid to New Jersey after 2012's Hurricane Sandy. (14 Democratic electoral college votes in 2012.) Conservative lawmakers balked at all the supposed "pork" that wasn't there. Why?

Beyond the obvious partisanship in whose disasters matter more to whom, Eric Levitz at New York Magazine digs deeper:

Few House conservatives would argue that forcing people in landlocked communities to pay for hurricane relief in Galveston is socialism; or that we should trust the free market and faith-based groups to rebuild Houston; or that giving government handouts to people who chose to live in a flood-prone city undermines personal responsibility, and, thus, does them more harm than good.

But plenty would argue that forcing healthy people to subsidize the medical bills of the sick is slow-motion Stalinism; or that churches should be trusted with combating childhood poverty; or that giving food assistance and affordable housing to low-income families breeds a morally decadent culture of dependency.
It couldn't be that government should only help the blameless, Levitz writes. (I mean, leukemia?) Or that we should rely on churches to rebuild cities. Or that it is mere hypocrisy. "[O]ne can’t quite argue that they’re welfare chauvinists."
The most compelling explanation for why conservatives are comfortable with government intervening on behalf of disaster victims — but not on behalf of the poor, sick, or racially disadvantaged — may be this: In the first case, the victims’ suffering is the product of natural forces that conservatives feel no compulsion to downplay or defend; in the latter, their suffering is caused by racial and economic inequalities that can’t be remedied without the kind of downward redistribution that the modern GOP exists to oppose.
To allow that government has a duty to redress economic inequality indicts the morality of the free market for allocating to each according to her/his worth (presumably measured by economic output). Levitz hypothesizes, "Conceding that government can, and must, redress the harms wrought by Tropical Storm Harvey requires no such indictment."

Levitz spends the rest of his essay examining the conservative response to a request by lefty activist Linda Sarsour for donations to the “#Harvey Hurricane Relief Fund.” In addition to addressing the physical needs of victims, like rebuilding housing for disadvantaged families, the fund helps low-income voters register to vote and organize to ensure they get the government assistance that flows more reliably to better-heeled communities.

"Ghoulish," tweets one NRO contributor. "Pure political activism," writes another. Donations to the Red Cross? No problemo.

But relief efforts in other disasters demonstrate that lower-income communities get short shrift because they have no access to the levers of power nor to those who can pull them. Information and the social resources to access aid are not readily available. And more assistance is available to home owners than to renters. The poorest and most vulnerable suffer most and may never fully recover. After Sandy, writes Janell Ross, "because decades of federal, state and local housing policy had made white residents far more likely than others to own their homes, the entire plan was poised to do more to meet the needs of the state’s disproportionately white, middle-class and wealthy homeowners than others ..."

PRI's Marketplace last night examined the complexity of disaster relief in the wake of Sandy and proved her point. It takes savviness and assertiveness to navigate bureaucracy designed for middle-income white people if you are not:
After Hurricane Sandy flooded Lisa Stevens’ home on the Jersey Shore in 2012, it took her until April 2016 to finalize her last repairs, including learning late in the rebuilding process that she needed to elevate her home.

It was a crash course in the bureaucracy of disaster recovery.

“We didn't know what we were facing and how long the recovery process was going to be,” she said. “I've seen people come into programs literally with three ring binders and every piece of paper, every receipt, every document.”

Her advice for Harvey and Irma survivors: Document everything.
Who helps the disadvantaged with that? Helping people access the aid that is available to the better-connected isn't what's ghoulish.

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