New Internationalist

The poverty of America

Issue 383

The disaster in New Orleans sheds new light on the nature of poverty in the rich world, according to Jeremy Seabrook.

The human toll of Hurricane Katrina is still being counted as the fetid waters that drowned a city recede or evaporate in the hot sun. Much has been written about how the ‘war on terror’ diverted spending from the defences of New Orleans. The absence of large numbers of the National Guard, on duty in Iraq, further delayed help to the stricken. The lack of clarity in responsibility between federal, state and local authorities exacerbated the disaster. The somnolence of George W Bush, deep, no doubt, in dreams of redistributing yet more wealth from poor to rich on his long holiday in Texas, made him slow to react to the enormity of what had happened. It has also uncovered unexpected vulnerabilities in this, the most powerful country on earth. It has laid bare, in the starkest and most tangible form, what is well known in theory: that this society is constructed upon a celebration of inequality, ingrown violence and great historic wrongs, which, for their sustenance, require continuous human sacrifice.

People in India often ask me whether poverty exists in the West. I tell them it is widespread. They accept the truth of this, but look puzzled. They find it hard to reconcile the ubiquitous imagery of abundance and luxury from the West with what they know of poverty as they experience it – the emaciation of extreme want. Do people labour in the fields for less than a day’s wage? Do they suffer hunger? Must they work 16 hours a day? Do they send their children to work? Must they wait till evening for the money that enables them to eat?

No, it isn’t like that. Poverty in the West is, assuredly, a violent visitation. But it has a different face from the poverty of India. It is hard to describe, to those who have never been out of India, the face of poverty in the richest societies in the world.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina have made it easier to explain, since it has demonstrated to everyone the nature of exclusion and resourcelessness in a country whose prodigious wealth inspires both envy and desire in the peoples of the earth.

For the waters that swept through New Orleans did more than inundate a beautiful and historic city. Among the debris of buildings, stores, churches, casinos, factories and fields, a human wreckage was deposited on the desolate streets. Pictures of used-up humanity – the shut-ins and the locked-aways, an incarcerated populace, a concealed people, those who pay the true cost of the expensive maintenance of the American Dream – have been beamed into the gilded dwelling-places of wealth.

A majority of those unable to flee the city are the victims of success, the failures and losers of a competitive, individualistic society which chooses to dwell only on achievement, celebrity and glory and to hide away its hopeless and the disappointed in the cellars and attics of forgetting; from which they were brutally flushed out by the raging waters of the Gulf. Rarely had they been seen in such multitudes; understandably, because concentrations of so many infirm and vulnerable, elderly and weak, unhinged and disordered people make visible the ugliness of America’s terrible social injustice.

They speak to us of the nature of poverty in rich societies. Many commentators observed that the poor of New Orleans were, overwhelmingly, black. This is true of the urban area of New Orleans – two-thirds black – which is one of the poorest in the US. But this tells us more about continuing segregation in America than it does about poverty. The disproportionate death toll among black people demonstrates their over-representation among the poor in the inner urban areas.

Of course, no-one in the path of the violent storm that gathered such intensity from the overheated waters of the Gulf could have resisted its violence. But the spectacle of lives washed up on hard city pavements was instructive of how far the poor of America are, in the ordinary conduct of their daily lives, without resources. If this seems a statement of the obvious, it shows nevertheless the dissimilarity between poverty in rich and poor countries. The stranded survivors of New Orleans were devoid of basic skills for survival, since survival in America depends totally upon money. Even the poorest people of Bangladesh, Niger, Brazil or India are not poor in the same way. The poor of the US have been remade in the image of wealth; that is to say, their lives have been fashioned by the same values, influences and expectations as the rest of society, which are those of the well-to-do. They are just as dependent upon money as the rich are, only they do not have the wherewithal to participate in a society constructed on the assumption that all human needs, wants and comforts must be bought in from the market. Nothing is grown, made, invented or created by the people for themselves and for others. Wealth means simply the ability to buy; to be cut off from this fundamental activity is to excluded, exiled from the society, an exile dramatically made worse when they were unable to move out of the path of the swirling floodwater.

In the developing world, poor people have learned to cope with what is lacking in their lives – not always successfully, it is true, but they have not yet learned the superior wisdom of the West, that nothing can be done without money. This is why the urban poor in Dhaka, Mumbai, Nairobi and Lagos still build their own shelters, create their own livelihoods, seek out their own fuel and grow food on any small parcel of land they can find.

But it is at times of catastrophic suffering and loss that the difference is most visible. That people in New Orleans left bodies unattended in the putrid waters of the Gulf and plundered the dispossessed is shocking and incomprehensible to the poor of India, Bangladesh or Africa. For when disaster strikes in the poor world – as it so regularly does – people do not loot and steal. They do not fire guns at rescue helicopters. They do not rob the hospitals of their drugs. They do not barricade themselves inside their rough shelters and write in white paint on their walls, Loot and Be Shot. The instinctive response of the poor in the ‘underdeveloped’ world is to succour those weaker than themselves, to share with them such meagre resources as they possess, to show a fundamental solidarity: the dereliction of others is not seen as an opportunity for gain. This is why they feel a bewildered compassion for the destructive rage of deprivation in the US.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina have demonstrated to everyone the nature of exclusion and resourcelessness in a country whose prodigious wealth inspires both envy and desire in the peoples of the earth.

Some commentators in America described scenes in New Orleans as ‘reminiscent of the Third World.’ They could not have been more wrong. This was an entirely ‘First World’ phenomenon: gun battles between looters and the National Guard, who operate a shoot-to-kill policy against predators, bloated corpses abandoned on riverbanks and sidewalks, or simply floating, unclaimed on the toxic flood – these are scenes which occur only in the lands of privilege.

This is what the poor of India and all the other hopeful countries of the world have been taught to envy and to long for. This is the supreme achievement of the richest societies the world has ever known; and it is the model, not merely preached, but actually imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the governments of the G8. That they are in no position to tell anyone else what to do is the enduring lesson from the disaster which has befallen, not merely Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, but American society itself, as it has demonstrated to the world its indifference towards those for whom the designation ‘loser’, ‘no-hoper’, ‘failure’ is applied as a stigma of moral, as well as material, incapacity.

It has long been clear that the West could easily provide a comfortable sufficiency for all the people of its own societies, if it chose to do so. It does not, for the simple reason that the fate of the poor must be maintained, as a warning and example to all who might otherwise be tempted to drop out, to relax their vigilance, to withdraw from the competitive ethos that drives people on to accumulate.

It is not ambition that drives the creation of wealth but the coercive fear of this ghastly version of poverty, this human-made construct that creates outcasts of plenty, human scarecrows brandished at dissenters to urge them to conform with this, the American or Western Dream. An indispensable component of its promise of wealth and affluence is its threat of a desperate, contrived and brutal form of poverty, of which the poor of India remain, at least for the moment, still innocent.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist. For an alternative view from inside the city, visit www.counterpunch.org

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The poverty of America

Leave your comment