Yesterday our nation marked the solemn anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with news coverage highlighting the lack of progress made since the winds and water washed away so many hopes and dreams. For many Americans, the images from Katrina may feel like distant memory, even though the arduous process of rebuilding continues at a painstaking pace. I believed and hoped that Katrina would be a watershed moment that awakened national outrage over the sleeping and all-too-invisible giants of inequality and poverty.

It seems almost providential timing that at the same moment we commemorate Katrina, the Census Bureau releases its annual statistics on poverty. The Census report provides almost a national CAT skan of our nation’s health. This year’s report offers a glimmer of good news in that the number of people living in poverty declined last year by 500,000. However, this decrease represents a modest one at best and shouldn’t obscure the shameful reality that 12.3% of Americans still live in the quicksand of poverty. Even more alarming is that the number of families living in poverty actually increased from 7.6 to 7.7 million, as did the number of people without health insurance–from 46.6 to 47 million.
Katrina held up a mirror to our nation, forcing us to ask the basic and penetrating questions, Are we really our brother or sister’s keeper? What kind of nation do we aspire to be? How would we want to be cared for in the midst of a national tragedy that shipwrecks lives? What are our responsibilities to and for each other, particularly toward the weakest and most vulnerable? These are fundamentally biblical questions echoed by the scathing indictments of the biblical prophets, and by Jesus’ judgment in Mathew 25 that “Just as you did to the least of these, you also did unto me.” Katrina tests our nation’s compassion, mercy, and commitment to justice, and demonstrated the urgent and unparalleled need for good and effective government.
But the government response at all levels has been at best a disappointment and at worst an unconscionable failure. We have seen an abundance of bureaucratic red tape, a cycle of inter-governmental blame, and a deficit of bold leadership. The evidence is in post-Katrina conditions and statistics that are heartbreaking. An estimated 66% of residents have returned to the city but only 10% of residents have from the now infamous Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans suffers from the highest crime rate in the country, and an estimated 20% of the city suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ten of the 23 major hospitals and medical facilities remain closed, creating a severe health care crisis.
I traveled to New Orleans in February to attend the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference. The trip was like beholding two separate cities in one. In the French quarter it felt like the best of times, with tourists returning for revelry, while the worst of times are still being felt just miles away in entire neighborhoods and parishes struggling to rebuild from the waterlogged ashes. While the waters have receded, pain and trauma remain indelible. Where the government has failed, civil society has triumphed with an outpouring of charity and volunteerism, arguably providing the greatest engine behind the progress made so far.
I pray that the week of August 29 becomes a week of national repentance for the indifference we have so often shown toward our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. The week can also be a time for national redemption as we rededicate ourselves to the work of uplifting and empowering those Americans whose lives are circumscribed by inequality and destitution. There are Lower Ninth Wards across our country, both in urban and rural settings, whose social levies remain fragile and broken. On this anniversary I hope you will redouble your efforts to support the rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast and deepen your commitment to redress the root causes of poverty in our nation.

Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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