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Defining the Right Demographic

Judy Muller

"Morning Edition," National Public Radio

September 6, 2005

"Before disaster strikes again, and it will, we need to redefine the right demographic."
[Note: This material is copyright by National Public Radio and Judy Muller and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the copyright holders.]

When President Bush first landed in the hurricane zone Friday, he offered this upbeat assessment,
ďThe good news is, and itís hard for some to see it now, but out of this chaos is going come a fantastic gulf coast, like it was before.  Out of the rubble of Trent Lottís house, he lost his entire house, is going to be a fantastic house, and," he added, "Iím looking forward to sitting on the porch.Ē
What a relief!

All of those Americans who might have been agonizing over this issue, wondering "How about Trent Lott? Will he ever rebuild?"  Well, they can rest easy now.

As for all those Americans who have been agonizing over the images of poor people, mostly poor black people, who never had their own homes to begin with, and who couldnít even afford the bus fare to get their families out of town before disaster struck, well, the news isnít quite so rosy.  In fact, the one question people keep asking over and over is, "I canít believe this is the United States of American Ė how can this be happening here?"

And the answer isnít actually that complicated.  Itís happening here because the nationís poor are so often ignored by the government, by the media, by wealthier Americans -- until a disaster of major proportions washes those horrific images up on our collective doorsteps.

Conventional wisdom says natural disasters like hurricanes donít discriminate. But society does discriminate. And so when natural disasters do hit, if you live in the poor part of town, the infrastructure will be shaky. The costs of transportation, good housing and medical care, prohibitive.

The result is what weíve all been watching, images that have forced us to wonder what we would do faced with no food or water for our children.  Would we steal from stores to survive?  Itís not a question middle-class Americans usually ask themselves.

Like it or not, the ďhavesĒ are being confronted with plight of the ďhave-nots.Ē

In the past, middle-class Americans didnít seem to care very much.  Perhaps if they had, politicians would have paid more attention, the media would have sent a few more reporters to look into those dreadful conditions, and maybe, just maybe, something might have changed.  Instead, we waited for catastrophe to shove us into empathy.

And now we are enraged to learn that the government had plenty of warning about those levees, but chose not to spend the big bucks that could have saved so many lives.  Enraged to learn the people sat in misery surrounded by the dead and dying for days, before anyone in authority came to help them.

This newfound empathy might very well dissipate as things get back to normal, and that would be a shame Ė a national shame.  Politicians would once again ignore the issue of poverty, the news media would once again ignore stories about poverty in the name of attracting the right demographic.

Before disaster strikes again, and it will, we need to redefine the right demographic, we need to broaden our view.  Trent Lottís porch just isnít going to be big enough.