The Drowned and the Saved

by Kieran Healy on September 2, 2005

Alan Schussman takes a first look at the social ecology of the flooded areas of New Orleans:

The flood area has a population of about 380,000. Here’s how it compares to national numbers [from the 2000 census]:

  median HH income % black % poverty % owns home % private trans. % public trans.
US $ 41,994 12.1 12.3 66.2 87.9 4.7
Flood area $ 29,854 66.8 26.9 50.6 79.0 13.0

These real numbers should be part of the discussion of why so many people didn’t get out of town. Jack Shafer gives it some thought, but it’s also informative to compare these numbers with national rates: In the flooded area of the city, poverty is more than twice as high as the national rate; median income is twelve thousand dollars lower; reliance on public transportation is nearly three times as high. Lower rates of owner-occupation mean a greater lack of insurance coverage …

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12 frogs » Blog Archive » The Mind Doesn’t So Much Boggle as Shut Down
09.02.05 at 10:30 pm
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09.03.05 at 6:55 am



dp 09.02.05 at 5:09 pm

Schussman says: “For the prospect of those very poor residents of New Orleans, evacuation was a lose-lose situation, one that threatened ruin either way.”

As someone in that economic class, I can say that if I were offered a way out of my current predicament I’d jump for it. If someon in Houston were offering me the same deal I have now I’d take it, just to get out of this trap, and maybe into a place with better prospects.

Schussman doesn’t show any understanding of that part of being poor, and I don’t see any hint in Shafer’s remarks either.


Carey 09.02.05 at 6:59 pm

It would be great if we could compare the numbers for the group of New Orleanians that heeded Mayor Nagin’s evacuation order with those for the group that remained in the city. I suspect that people living in poverty made up a larger percentage of the group that didn’t leave.

So we ask the question: should we have had a more robust evacuation plan that went beyond simply telling everyone to flee, and leaving them to their own devices? Did the government discharge its responsibilities when it gave the evacuation order, or should it have been responsible for ensuring that people without cars and money actually had a way to get out?

And since people are bound to wonder, we ought to ask if the race and socioeconomic class of most of those trapped in New Orleans was in any way related to the speed with which the federal government mobilized its relief efforts.

Hopefully, the disaster in New Orleans might teach us something about the proper role of government. My hope is that we’ll realize (remember?) that a laissez-faire approach can be barbarically inappropriate more often than the country’s conservative leadership is willing to acknowledge.


Alan Schussman 09.03.05 at 12:34 am

dp, note that I wasn’t discussing the _current_ predicament of the now-refugees; of course they’re ready to jump at the chance to get out of town. I was writing specifically in response to the criticism of those who didn’t leave town before the hurricane, making the point that _that_ decision was a lose-lose situation: The options were to leave (somehow), and risk losing everything you have without chance of replacement while at the same time lacking resources to last more than a couple of days (these aren’t the people who can charge a week at the Marriott somewhere out of town); or stay, and face the same risk plus the new hazards created by the flood and its aftermath. That’s lose-lose.


Mitchell Young 09.03.05 at 2:26 am

And since people are bound to wonder, we ought to ask if the race and socioeconomic class of most of those trapped in New Orleans was in any way related to the speed with which the federal government mobilized its relief efforts.

So too are we bound to ask if people of the race and class of the vast majority of those in the astrodome etc has implications for their abilities to plan ahead, to self organize in a disaster, to refrain from violence in a situation of social disorder.


Ragout 09.03.05 at 3:09 am

It’s worth pointing out that the figures for private and public transportation refer to the commuting methods of workers.

I looked up some figures for car ownership in New Orleans (from another data source) which turn out to be closer to the commuting figures then I’d guessed. I would have expected people without jobs to be less likely to own cars.

% of Households without a car, truck, or van
New Orleans Metro Area: 11%
NO Metro, Poor: 30%
NO Metro, Black: 21%
New Orleans City: 20%


Keith M Ellis 09.03.05 at 4:18 am

dp, merely by virtue of your being able to post here I find your identification with these people laughable and risible.

But feel free to correct me with details of your specific circumstances.

And, also, if the measurement is merely a) income for the last three years, and b) housing situation, then I’m certain I can beat any claim you might make to poverty. Because my answers are “zero” (I’ve been living on charity); and b) technically homeless (again, charity). And I’m disabled. And I would never dare to compare my situation with those in the poorest areas of the ghettos of New Orleans.


jet 09.03.05 at 9:11 am

DP, by being on the intra-web thingy and being a reader and poster on Crooked Timber, you are light years ahead of many of the poor in New Orleans in social and cultural capital.


Matt Weiner 09.03.05 at 11:23 am

This doesn’t go to Jet’s point about social and cultural capital, but internet access doesn’t automatically make you rich. Over the last couple of years I spent a lot of reasonable amount of time logged onto the internet in public libraries. There were some visibly poor people logged onto the internet next to me.


harry b 09.03.05 at 1:48 pm

Public libraries provide free access. But jet’s point stands.


dp 09.04.05 at 6:02 pm

Whoa! It’s nice being taken to task for once. Actual dialogue!

First, I did not mean to diminish Alan Schussman’s main points. I apologise for leaving that impression. In addition, my situation is expressly not those of poor blacks in New Orleans after a devastating storm and facing the institutional and cultural racism Americans are so careful to maintain. So call me inconsiderate for not fitting the profile/sterotype to the last iota. More importantly, I am not tied to place by family and local loyalties, so I’m ready to leave this place at the first opportunity. In that way I am probably *very unlike* some residents of New Orleans. I think this is a more salient point than the role of furnishings. People don’t leave family. More on this in a moment.

In spite of all these disqualifications, I think that ‘poverty’ applies to anyone in a condition of indenture, of fiscal and social deprivation, situations characterised by restricted mobility. Poverty in that sense is about being stuck; stuck in places that are not good socially or economically, with no immediate prospect or means of getting out. Note also that the paycheck-to-paycheck, living-in-a-bedsit mode is only one form of poverty. There are plenty of others that deserve equal consideration in light of the question about people’s priorities. But even in the situation described, I would happily abandon my furniture, the things Jack Schafer mentions. These can be scavenged in whatever place I end up. The main thing would be to get out. I’d also be happy to abandon my bad debts, my failed relationships, whatever. It can be good to go.

I think a lot of people in New Orleans, pre-and-post hurricane, would empathise. I also think a lot of people would jump at the chance to leave, particularly if someone else footed the bill. How many economic migrants would say no to that?

Now back to the point about family. I read Jack Schafer’s remarks as having an intimation that departure would have long-term consequences. Here they are again.

A paycheck-to-paycheck victim … “couldn’t risk leaving because if he (sic) lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he’d have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.”

I’ve got news: my cooking equipment, my chairs and shelves, my blankets, my bicycle, my cassette player, my computer, my lamps and even some tools come out of rubbish bins. Middle-class people sure throw away a lot. So Jack seems to have overlooked informal economies, and the larger question of how poor people cope, make do, take care of themselves and others. Ever lived on the street? How did you manage the transition back to ‘housed’ accommodation? Granted, the process varies widely depending on one’s circumstances, but it can be done pretty easily, even while destitute, without friends or family.

Maybe Jack’s hand-to-mouth people cannot scrounge, and need insurance, need extended family. Fair enough. Maybe that’s typical in New Orleans. Or maybe we’re not thinking of the same class of people. But I have had no problem replacing stuff after periods of living rough or as an itinerant. So I think Jack misses something, and this isn’t picked up subsequently by Alan, nor by respondents here.

Maybe that’s the point I should have made initially. It’s not difficult to put a life together, particularly if one is destitute and footloose. Footloose as in not being bound to place by family or social ties. It’s hardly a lose-lose situation. So here’s a pertinent question: did those people stay in New Orleans because of the risk scenario Jack describes, or did they stay for social reasons? Which do you find more compelling, more likely?

Aside from that, the one point worth responding to is about cultural capital. If I understand it as intended, the presumption is that the people stranded in New Orleans are extraordinarily disenfranchised, far more so than anyone with internet access and the ability to carry on a quasi-intellectual conversation. I don’t buy that argument. It smacks of patronising stereotypes. Sure, some, maybe even many residents of New Orleans could be described that way, but it’s incredibly blinkered to deny all of them the social and cultural capital that facilitates activity in discussions like this.

In short, it sounds like you’re saying none of those people can do what we can. That might be a point worth clarifying. Matt Weiner’s remark goes to the heart of it: being *visibly* poor is what matters.


dp 09.07.05 at 4:15 am

As I mentioned above, there are probably many people in New Orleans who would be glad to abandon their current circumstances for new ones – even if the conditions are much the same. Today’s NYT carries a story with evidence of such willingness, as follows:

‘HOUSTON, Sept. 6 – In her 19 years, all spent living in downtown New Orleans, Chavon Allen had never ventured farther than her bus fare would allow, and that was one trip last year to Baton Rouge. But now that she has seen Houston, she is planning to stay.
“This is a whole new beginning, a whole new start. I mean, why pass up a good opportunity, to go back to something that you know has problems?” asked Ms. Allen, who had been earning $5.15 an hour serving chicken in a Popeyes restaurant.’

This from someone who probably has family in New Orleans, probably has thre capacity to return should she wish, but for whom a change is a better prospect, per my comments above.

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