BACKTALK | winter 2006
The 2005 hurricane season demonstrated that nature wreaks havoc with impartiality. Hurricane Katrina’s dramatic winds destroyed beautiful lakefront resorts, Gulf
Coast mansions and profitable seaside casinos with the
same gale force as those which ravaged shotgun houses
and public housing where some of America’s poorest citizens
While nature may treat us all equally, however, the recent
hurricanes confirmed that society does not. Racial and economic inequalities briefly came to the fore as the
faces of New Orleans’ chronically poor citizens filled our
TV screens, but then those images were too easily brushed
aside when the next news cycle rolled in. Congress made
noise that it was going to investigate the impact of the hurricanes on its Gulf Coast victims, then sadly turned its
attention to other matters.
Since Congress and the Bush administration continue
to ignore the millions of Americans living below the
poverty line, it is essential that the women’s movement
make the eradication of chronic poverty a top priority. We
must have a frank conversation about what it means to be
poor in America and what we can do to alleviate the suffering
of the women and men who work two or three
minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet.
Women’s voices should lead this debate since the burdens
of poverty fall unevenly on us. Of the 37 million
poor people in this country, 21 million are women. Many
of them head single-parent households, which are four
and a half times more likely to be impoverished than two-parent
In the Gulf Coast region, the poverty gap runs even
deeper. In my hometown of New Orleans, an astonishing
26 percent of women live under the federal poverty line,
nearly double the national average. Louisiana, Mississippi
and Texas—the three states hit hardest during the 2005
hurricane season—rank above the 85th percentile in the
U.S. with respect to women living in poverty.
Many of these women, including some members of my family, lack health insurance, cannot find affordable housing
and cannot pay for the child care that would allow
them to improve their education and find better work.
The Gulf Coast disasters brought to light the struggles poor families face in order to survive; it is now incumbent
upon us to remove the barriers that keep so many people trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder.
An important step toward lessening poverty is to ensure
that women take part in every aspect of rebuilding
the Gulf Coast. Women must move past the disheartening
statistics that foster our identity as victims and instead
become active agents for change. If women take a seat at
the table when decisions are made, we can promote an
agenda that includes fair wages, affordable housing, jobs,
quality and affordable child care, and other policies that
would enable us to work toward a permanent solution
rather than a temporary fix.
Providing a living wage is critical. Since poor families
are hurt when their members go without having basic
needs and standards of care met, we must hold government
accountable for its pledge to promote strong and
And women need more than a temporary raise in
wages—they must be trained for quality jobs that will raise permanent earning potential and continue to keep
them and their families afloat. Too often women are
forced into low-paying jobs because they lack sufficient
skills, and they overlook well-paid occupations traditionally
held by men, such as the construction trades, because
they lack training. Getting women the training they need
to break into higher- paying jobs would interrupt the cycle
The national discussion of chronic poverty must address
the fact that since September 11 this country has focused
attention on eradicating terrorism to the exclusion
of serious domestic threats, such as the lack of affordable
health care. America can do better. We owe it to the victims
of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to once again summon
the nation to eradicate poverty. During this election
season, which will set the stage for the next presidential
contest, we must hold our elected officials accountable.
It’s time we force a conversation about reducing poverty
in America and provide the underpaid and underemployed
with the tools they need to rebuild their lives.
Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).