Har­vey’s bur­dens will fall hard­est on the poor

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - By David Von Drehle David Von Drehle is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post, where he writes about na­tional af­fairs and pol­i­tics from a home base in the Mid­west.

A dozen years after the flood­ing of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, the neigh­bor­hood’s signs of re­vival and re­build­ing stand out against the va­cancy of scraped lots and half-fin­ished re­pairs.

There’s an in­sight some­times cred­ited to W. B. “Bat” Master­son, the buf­falo hunter turned Wild West law­man turned hard-drink­ing gam­bler who ended up as a pal of Theodore Roo­sevelt and died a fa­mous New York sports­writer. (Only in Amer­ica!) The in­sight goes like this: Every­one gets the same amount of ice in life. The rich get theirs in the sum­mer; the poor in the win­ter.

The catas­tro­phe on the Texas coast makes little or no dis­tinc­tion be­tween rich and poor — for now, any­way. The gates of a gated community can’t hold back the wa­ters of an epic flood. But even this Noah-like del­uge will stop even­tu­ally, and when the rain ends and the wa­ter drains from rivers and bay­ous, the dif­fer­ences will be­come stark.

For those who get their ice in sum­mer, the af­ter­math of Har­vey will be var­i­ous amounts of has­sle and grief. There will be car­pet­ing to rip up, dry­wall to strip away and re­place, cars to scrap, gar­dens to re­store, ru­ined fur­ni­ture to haul out and new fur­ni­ture to carry in. Har­vey will be a me­mory talked about for decades, a tale of snakes sun­ning on muddy drive­ways, curbs piled high with mildewed refuse and draw­ers of trea­sured preschool art­work turned to pulpy soup.

But these chal­lenges and dis­ap­point­ments will be eased by the emol­lient bless­ing of money: the in­sur­ance check, the sav­ings ac­count, the home-eq­uity loan, the paid va­ca­tion days to de­vote to clean­ing up. In many cases, these re­sources are the fruits of years of hard work at school and on the job, plus self-dis­ci­plined plan­ning and thrift. So I’m not say­ing that pros­per­ity is un­fair. I’m sim­ply say­ing that money is never more use­ful than in a time of cri­sis, and it makes the cri­sis eas­ier to over­come.

Peo­ple who get their ice in win­ter are fac­ing a to­tal loss. Their neigh­bor­hoods are likely to be on low ground, be­cause el­e­va­tion goes for a pre­mium in a land of bay­ous. After days or weeks un­der wa­ter, tens of thou­sands of their homes and cars will be not just dam­aged but de­stroyed. And the de­struc­tion of pos­ses­sions will be fol­lowed by the loss of com­mu­ni­ties. Net­works of friend­ship and mu­tual sup­port will be shred­ded as Hous­ton’s refugees fan out across the coun­try in search of new work, new homes, new schools.

A visit to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Or­leans, Louisiana, gives a glimpse of the fu­ture for Hous­ton’s poor. A dozen years after the flood­ing of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, the neigh­bor­hood’s signs of re­vival and re­build­ing stand out against the va­cancy of scraped lots and half-fin­ished re­pairs. Thou­sands of peo­ple left and haven’t come back. The pop­u­la­tion of New Or­leans has fallen be­low 400,000 for the first time since the 1920s.

Para­dox­i­cal as it may seem, the less a per­son has, the harder it is to re­place it. What do I mean? Sup­pose you own a car that just barely gets you to work and back, de­spite a miss­ing fender and a bro­ken win­dow cov­ered with card­board. You don’t have in­sur­ance on it, be­cause the de­ductible is higher than the re­place­ment value. Now Har­vey has de­stroyed it, and you can no longer get to work. Which means there’s no money for another jalopy.

The corol­lary is equally para­dox­i­cal: Be­ing poor is more ex­pen­sive than be­ing rich. Gro­ceries cost more in a bodega than a su­per­mar­ket. The smaller your cash pile, the higher the in­ter­est rate you must pay to get a loan. If you can’t af­ford fur­ni­ture and de­cide to rent some, you’ll end up pay­ing far more than the fur­ni­ture is worth. And so on. A study for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion once cal­cu­lated that a mere 1 per­cent re­duc­tion in the cost of im­pov­er­ished liv­ing would pump $6.5 bil­lion into Amer­ica’s low-in­come house­holds.

Amer­ica’s gen­eros­ity in times of cri­sis is one of our most ad­mirable qual­i­ties. Less ad­mirable is the wide­spread ten­dency to see money as a sign of virtue — and on the flip side, to see poverty as an em­blem of weak­ness. The mom on min­i­mum wage who gets her chil­dren to school with clean clothes and home­work fin­ished is ac­com­plish­ing a very dif­fi­cult thing, at least as de­mand­ing as writ­ing the code for a ride-shar­ing app. (Or writ­ing a news­pa­per col­umn.)

Sur­viv­ing poverty with dig­nity and in­tegrity is harder than sur­viv­ing wealth. And those who man­age to over­come poverty to ar­rive at pros­per­ity are, as Abra­ham Lin­coln ob­served, the very peo­ple on whom our fu­ture de­pends.

It is on the tired backs of the poor that the heav­i­est bur­dens of the hur­ri­cane will fall, and they will bear that weight for the long­est time. May the sym­pa­thy we feel for them in this hour of dis­as­ter har­den into some­thing more last­ing: re­spect.

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