Although Hurricane Katrina generated a compassionate public response toward those affected, it did not lead to a serious discourse about the nature of poverty in America, nor did it lead policymakers to re-examine antipoverty policies. In this paper, we present data on long-run trends in the economic status of African Americans and Whites. We demonstrate that even though earnings are lower and poverty rates are higher for African Americans than for Whites, the economic experiences of poor Americans have been similar over the last three decades. The period since the early 1970s has been an era of slow growth in median earnings for all workers and falling real earnings for less-educated men. Although the economy has generated increasing economic hardship for less-educated workers, antipoverty policies have not taken up the slack. If the United States had in place a more comprehensive safety net, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the poor would have been smaller than they were. We discuss a series of policies that address the broad poverty problem that persists. However, since these safety net reforms are not likely to be implemented, we also propose a “disaster-assistance safety net” that could better serve the poor in the aftermath of any future natural or other disaster.
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