Angela Bonavoglia

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s now quite obvious that Hurricane Katrina not only devastated the Gulf Coast, but also laid bare the suffering of America’s underclass. In the aftermath, we face critical questions of what went wrong, how to make things right, and especially, how to deal with poverty.

One of the most vexing answers to the poverty question came from Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review.

In an essay on Sept. 2, he decried accusations that racism played any role in the Bush administration’s lack of response to impoverished flood victims in New Orleans. He also acknowledged that poverty is dangerous. But instead of addressing the failure of governmental programs to alleviate poverty, he identified another cause: “the breakdown of the family.”

“If people are stripped of the most basic social support–the two-parent family,” he wrote, “they will be more vulnerable in countless ways . . . especially . . . in moments of crisis.”

Lowry also has a solution. What’s needed, he wrote, is “a grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the Left in exchange for the Right’s support for more urban spending (anything is worth addressing the problem of fatherlessness).”

Talk about a blame game. Lowry message: If only there were a man in the house, women would stop having all those fatherless babies, and all would be well with the underclass. The culprits are clear: poor single mothers.

While that assertion is deeply disturbing in itself–especially as we haven’t even buried the dead from this disaster–it is doubly so because of the warm reception it has received even from some devoted liberals.

On Sept. 7, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, an eloquent student of urban poverty, was a guest on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show.

DeParle bemoaned the stalled national conversation about poverty and shared his hope that Katrina’s aftermath would “dynamite” the conversation back into the spotlight again.

Lehrer observed that “there is at least one indication of that in the conservative press from Rich Lowry,” referring to his article calling on the Left to deal with out-of-wedlock births.

DeParle cheered Lowry on, attesting to a new willingness on the Left to deal with “family structure” and a readiness in the country to embark on Lowry’s “grand bargain.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof went even further in his Sept. 6 column, declaring Lowry’s proposed left-right bargain “an excellent suggestion.”

Reality check. As I wrote in my New York Times letter to the editor regarding Kristof’s article, the Left, particularly feminists, have been struggling for decades to ensure that women–including poor women–have everything they need to manage their sexuality without judgment. That includes family planning services, birth control, over-the-counter emergency contraception, early pregnancy termination and accurate sex education, as well as the schooling and job training that will enable them to find hope, value and respect in other ways besides childbearing.

It is the Right–the Republicans and this Administration–that have been blocking these efforts at every turn, hiding behind a sanctimonious pro-life banner, refusing to accept their own culpability in all of these “out-of-wedlock” births.

Self Esteem, Self Respect

More reality. What all women need to flourish, to be productive and responsible, is self-esteem and self-respect. Both are intimately connected to the way women feel about their sexuality.

Unfortunately, our culture deals with that sexuality schizophrenically. On one hand it encourages women and girls to be wildly sexual, as in all those “Girls Gone Wild” videos, a message that pervades our music, advertising, fashion, movies and television programs.

On the other hand, our culture unconscionably withholds from women the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies, from accurate information about condoms, to over-the-counter access to Plan B or even being able to get birth control pills at the local pharmacy.

The message is clear: Being sexy makes you powerful; having babies makes you good. Choosing to have sex but not have babies makes you very, very bad. It’s an old song in a new tempo.

The notion that women who have children out of wedlock are the cause of their own poverty and therefore undeserving of empathy, sympathy or help is just one more American myth. It ensures that such women wind up in the bin with all those other non-deserving poor.

Deserving vs. Undeserving

Our social welfare system has long been based on separating the deserving from the non-deserving.

Social Security and Medicare are for the deserving. Those benefits are easy to get and you’re not stigmatized for getting them.

Welfare and Medicaid are for the non-deserving. They’re hard to get and carry a deep stigma.

In this way, the rich elderly are separated from the poor elderly. The wealthy disabled are separated from the disabled with little money. The acceptable widows and orphans are separated from the never-married and their “illegitimate” offspring.

Until Katrina. Like a raging goddess, she has come in and scrambled the mix, erased the caste lines. We cannot tell, as our hearts break, who among the streams of suffering humanity before us are deserving, and who, the undeserving.

What We Want for Each Other

We see thousands going hungry, and we want them fed; thirsty, and we want them to have water. Those without housing we want sheltered. Those who are unsafe we want protected. Those without means, we want to have opportunity. Those without health insurance we want to receive care.

Anything to keep them alive.

All this is bad news for the president, the slashers of social programs and those who blame women and the poor for their own poverty.

Certainly, there are poor women who have children they can’t care for. But we have a culture where women are badgered into believing their ultimate value lies in their willingness to reproduce. Or, in their willingness to be utterly and totally sexualized.

After all this time, we still need to learn to value women for who they are. To help women to realize that value, to find routes to self-esteem besides reproduction. Women need to be able to be sexual on their own terms, even to discover what those terms are. And they need freedom from judgment for being sexual, but choosing not to be mothers just yet.

All this will require dramatic changes in men, too–of all classes, races and cultural traditions–in the way they view women and in the seriousness with which they treat protecting a woman from an unwanted pregnancy.

But even all that will not solve our basic problem: inequity and its consequences.

That problem requires a different kind of “grand bargain,” a meeting of the Left and Right at the Mississippi Delta where we’ve seen with stark clarity what it means to be human in what we’ve witnessed and what we’ve felt.

It raises portentous questions: Why do the poor deserve all of this support after a natural disaster, but not in the normal, struggling course of their lives? What is a nation’s responsibility to its people?

Along with the landscape, Katrina has shattered the mantle of our benign neglect, forcing us, literally, to rethink America.

Angela Bonavoglia, MSW, is a New York-based freelance journalist and the author of “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church” (Harper-Collins/ReganBooks, 2005) and “The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion” (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001).

For more information:

National Review Online–Rich Lowry’s “The Coming Battle Over New Orleans”:

The New York Times–Nicholas Kristof’s “The Larger Shame”:

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