Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Awash in poverty

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 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.

David Von Drehle was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine and is the author of four books, including "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year" and "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America." © 2017 Washington Post

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