MAIL CALL: POOR, HELPLESS AND CAUGHT IN HARM'S WA

Readers grappled with the hard questions surrounding poverty and race--subjects explored in our Sept. 19 Special Report--that arose in Katrina's wake. One reader wrote that "it's about time" the issues were addressed; another agreed, finding the report "on target." Others, like one woman, asked, "Why did it take an abomination like Katrina to open America's eyes?" Still, some pointed to what they considered failed entitlement programs, such as welfare and food stamps, that one reader said "don't break the cycle of poverty," yet "provide enough to live, but never enough to excel." She wrote, "Stop having out-of-wedlock children and get a job." For a New Yorker with a "comfortable lifestyle," our story helped open her eyes: "I realized I live in a bubble. Was I naive assuming that government will protect the poor, or do I live in denial, not seeing what has become so transparent? Do we really need a daily latte, or is the money better spent on tetanus shots?"

Poverty in Our Backyard

Thank you so much for Jonathan Alter's excellent article on poverty in America ("The Other America," Sept. 19). I pray with every fiber of my being that our elected representatives will take this opportunity to realign their priorities and start addressing this tragic and inexcusable situation. Thank you for showcasing this important issue in your fine magazine.

Danielle Masursky

Philadelphia, Pa.

Thank you for the excellent article "The Other America." I am relieved to see major media sources finally address the underlying poverty in our country, so renowned for its material wealth. However, one aspect of the problem that you glossed over is the funding of our public-education system. Because our schools are primarily funded by property taxes, some poor districts receive less than half the per-pupil allowance that their wealthier neighbors do. This means that children who are already disadvantaged by their poverty get short-changed on their education--often their only way out of poverty. We pride ourselves on giving all our citizens equal opportunities to succeed, yet millions of children are left behind due to an unjust system that no amount of state testing, recess cutbacks or faith-based initiatives can fix. If we really want to snub out poverty, we need to put our money where our mouths are and provide adequate funding to all schools.

Caitlin Prentice

Traverse City, Mich.

Jonathan Alter says, "democrats have... shown more allegiance to the teachers unions... than to poor kids." Now teachers are being blamed for the poverty of children, too? If it weren't for the teachers union, I would not have the job protection that allows me to advocate for the true needs of the children. Poor children are not just a set of test scores to be changed. The overemphasis on test scores is partially to detract attention from the myriad problems in children's lives that the politicians and society cannot, or do not want to, change.

Debra J. Sarver

San Leandro, Calif.

Your devastating photograph of the elderly black lady in your Special Report moved me more than anything else I have seen on this catastrophe. What must she have been thinking? She looks old enough to have experienced the Ku Klux Klan, the civil-rights movement and so many other indignities heaped on the poorest of our black citizens. Now we can add to her long life the terror of living through this storm and waiting days for help to arrive. This is the true picture of America's dirty little secret. We show the world the rich and powerful America, and now it sees us as we really are: totally uncaring of our most needy people. I am a white, educated female who emigrated from a European country 40 years ago and have been welcomed with open arms and given every opportunity to succeed in this great country. I am ashamed to say I did not know such poverty existed. It is time to eradicate this national disgrace.

Philippa S. Davies

Center Ossipee, N.H.

Jonathan Alter's dissection of poverty describes the plight of one woman who was "forced" to drop out of high school at 17 because she was pregnant, and another woman who dropped out of school at 12 who then went on to have five children. Should it be a surprise to anyone that both these women live in poverty? We need to face the hard truths about the causes of poverty and look at the statistics that show that those who graduate from high school, don't have children until they are married and don't marry until they are at least 20 make up a small number of poor people. When we assign responsibility for a 17-year-old's becoming pregnant or a 12-year-old's dropping out of school and having five children, we must discuss the issue of personal responsibility. It is not the government that produces these children as a ploy to obstruct the path to economic advancement.

Joe Cordill

Shreveport, La.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin's notion that "we have a moral obligation to provide every American with a decent life" is ridiculous. Nobody has the obligation to provide me with anything. I have a responsibility to provide for myself and my family. In my 20s I found myself a single parent of four small children due to divorce. Welfare offered a temporary solution to my problem. I knew I had a responsibility to myself, my children and my community to provide for my family. Student loans and grants are available to those who choose to educate themselves in an effort to make a better life. I worked part time and attended college full time while raising my children, eating mostly macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly for four and a half years. I graduated at the top of my class. I can tell you firsthand that it can be done and that the increased income that comes with increased education is more than enough to make low-interest student-loan payments.

Dawn S. Judiscak

O'Fallon, Ill.

I am happy to see an article about poverty in America. It is sad that it took such a disaster to attract the media's attention. I am a 26-year-old single mother of four, recently out of an abusive relationship. I make $9 an hour after working at my job for four years. This is the most I can expect to make at this level of employment. It offers no 401(k), no pension and no insurance. I receive child-care assistance, food stamps, Medicaid and Earned Income Credit. I need these things to survive. I could go on and on about the problems that I face and that I see people around me dealing with on a daily basis, but there is no room for that here. Most people in the middle and upper classes have no idea what it is like to have to choose between paying the bills and buying shoes or food for your children. They are angry because they see someone getting something that he or she doesn't have to pay for. What they don't see is that many of these people work just as hard as they do, usually in much less desirable conditions, and bring home far less money. They also do not know what it is like to look at your life and see no hope for the future. So they blame poor people for their own situation. But if we are working and contributing to society, don't we deserve at least to live a stable and comfortable existence? Are our jobs and roles in society so much less important that we do not deserve to have adequate housing and to feed and clothe our children?

Samantha Stewart

Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Katrina and the Blame Game

President George W. Bush, his predecessors and Congress, present and past, blew it long before Katrina was born ("How Bush Blew It," Sept. 19). The flooding of New Orleans was not the result of a natural event, Katrina or otherwise. It was man-made by those who, knowing the levee system was not up to a serious hurricane, still refused to fund an upgrade. Had that been done, Katrina's damage to New Orleans would have been slight by comparison. How many other tragedies are waiting to happen courtesy of budget, tax and political ideology?

Dan Thompson

Union, Ore.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have pictured a scenario in which President Bush's aides are nervously debating which of them should advise him to cut his five-week vacation short in a time of national crisis. Yet that is exactly what Evan Thomas describes in "How Bush Blew It." That alone should strike fear in all Americans. Whatever Bill Clinton's perceived personal and moral failings were (and the accompanying, relentless criticism), it is impossible to imagine a similar debate in the Clinton White House.

Maranna Meehan

Havertown, Pa.

Please, do not play the blame and shame game. I am not ashamed; I am very proud of the outpouring of compassion and compensation by my countrymen and my government. And is it necessary to blame the president? Let's learn from our mistakes so we can do better the next time--and we will. Blame and shame have no place in the midst of this catastrophe.

Howard Morin

Woodstock, Ga.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the immediate local, state and federal response to the Hurricane Katrina crisis. President Bush has accepted responsibility for federal failures. However, his well-known enemies continue to target him without holding the Louisiana governor or New Orleans mayor's feet to the fire. Clearly, the Katrina disaster has been reduced to mindless, hateful politics beyond reason and common sense, deepening social, political and economic divisions that are dangerous to our national health and security. Maybe the time has come for nonpartisan elections and government. Our survival may very well depend on it.

Daniel B. Jeffs

Apple Valley, Calif.

After reading "How Bush Blew It," I have become even more convinced that 50 to 100 years from now, objective historians will remember George W. Bush as the most unfairly criticized president in U.S. history.

Harry Wastrack

Sterling, Va.

Mother Nature's 'Wake-Up Call'

Thank you, Anna Quindlen, for articulating the most fundamental of the many lessons Katrina must teach us: that American development and consumption patterns in recent decades are simply not sustainable ("Don't Mess With Mother," Sept. 19). If reckless development had not destroyed so much of the wetlands and barrier islands that once protected New Orleans from the worst of nature's furies, Katrina would not have been so damaging to the city. This storm is clearly an environmental wake-up call for all Americans. As Quindlen points out, our "heedless, grasping" development is undermining Mother Nature's intricate systems of protective checks and balances, and our burning of fossil fuels "like there's no tomorrow" is heating the globe and dooming us to further damaging climate events like Katrina. We must change our ways quickly--both through our laws and through our individual lifestyle choices--to ease our footprint on the natural world that sustains us.

Glenn Campbell

Lakewood, Ohio

The title of Anna Quindlen's column, The Last Word, was never more apt than in the Sept. 19 issue. In the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, Americans began to embrace a conservation ethic that spread across the land. But, 70 years later, the words "conservation" and "ethic" have little meaning for far too many people. Laws that were passed to protect our soil, air and water have been largely legislated around or simply overturned. Midsize automobiles that were getting 30 to 35 miles per gallon in the '70s have been replaced with vehicles that get 18 to 20 miles per gallon. Houses are being built with more glass and higher ceilings than ever before, with no regard for the cost to heat and cool them. We look the other way when it comes to alternative energy sources. We turn a deaf ear to scientists who speak about mercury contamination of our waters or climate change. Perhaps the man-made mess we have in New Orleans is our wake-up call. One thing is certain: it will take a change in values and strong leadership to rebuild for the future. We can't have one without the other.

Barbara Prindle, Immediate Past President

St. Paul, Minn.

I have seldom found even one point in any of Anna Quindlen's columns that does not ring true for me. But her comment that "there has been no powerful national leadership from either party on [the environmental] front in recent memory" leaves me wondering if she has forgotten Al Gore. Gore made political and campaign issues out of environmental concerns like global warming, emission levels, urban sprawl and more. I can't help but think that America would be better off today if we had had Gore as our president. Quindlen is certainly correct in stating that "we have been crummy stewards of the Earth, with a sense of knee-jerk entitlement that tells us there is always more where this came from." She knows there isn't. Gore did, too. He took what Quindlen calls "the long view" long before Hurricane Katrina and repeatedly warned us to carefully keep "Earth in the balance." We should have heeded his advice.

Rebecca Kennedy

Ft. Collins, Colo.

High Prices at the Pump

Bravo to Robert Samuelson! I have worn my friends out during the last 15 years telling them that what this country needs is an immediate 50-cent tax increase for gasoline, coupled with a 10-cent increase every January for at least the next 10 years ("Why Cheap Gas Is a Bad Habit," Sept. 19). It is counterproductive to spend billions on the war on terrorism and not attack the source where a portion of the funding is coming from. If the tax increase had come years before the war on terrorism, perhaps that war would not exist today. Our dependence on imported oil is a disgrace, especially when there are alternate fuels that can be used.

Wallace W. Arnett

Leetsdale, Pa.

Robert Samuelson's Sept. 19 article not only is overly simplistic but would accelerate the present administration's efforts to shrink our middle class. He says that $4 or $5 a gallon for gasoline would push American drivers away from today's gas guzzlers. True, but it would greatly help to push poor and lower-middle-class Americans away from getting food, health care and other necessities. The poor simply cannot afford to trade in their old clunkers for a new hybrid that costs $3,000 to $4,000 more than conventional cars. Why not heavily tax the pickups, SUVs and minivans that our government saw fit to class as "light trucks"? Samuelson is correct that trading an Expedition for a Taurus is "not a national tragedy." The tragedy occurs when the poor and lower middle class simply cannot afford to drive at all when gasoline is $5 a gallon. The tragedy occurs when they are forced to sell their automobiles to meet living expenses.

E. B. Trueblood Jr.

Franklin, N.C.

Robert Samuelson suggests an increase in the oil tax to raise gas prices as a means of forcing Americans to conserve energy. While I understand his rationale, I am not prepared to shoulder any more of the burden of energy conservation for my selfish neighbors. I came of age during what some refer to as the Carter administration's "draconian" policies for energy conservation. I believed then, as I do today, that small acts by all Americans can go a long way toward conserving energy and preserving the lifestyles that we have all come to value. I have always owned compact cars. I drive judiciously, keep my thermostat low in the winter, use air conditioning sparingly in the summer and bristle at the number of SUVs in my town. I am all for taxation as a method of imposing self-control on Americans, but suggest that we tax those who continue to buy SUVs or who refuse to carpool or do the minimum required to conserve oil for their neighbors and for future generations.

Jeanne King

West Chester, Pa.

As Robert Samuelson notes in his Sept. 19 column, hybrid vehicles have a downside: electronic complexity, a battery pack and a stiff premium versus traditional, gas-powered vehicles. But he fails to mention diesels, popular in Europe and for good reason. They get near-hybrid mileage by using a simple, proven engine type that has been around for decades. My turbo-diesel VW Jetta, for instance, gets a combined 42mpg (city-highway), has amazing zippiness and produces none of the black smoke Americans associate with the diesels of a generation ago. Many major automakers already have diesel vehicles overseas, including a Honda CR-V that gets 42mpg. Why not bring them here?

Bill Miller

Orlando, Fla.

While I agree with much of what Robert Samuelson says, he should remember that not everyone who uses fuel is just a recreational user, and not everyone lives in a place where there is public transportation. We live 30 miles from a town, gas station or grocery store, and my daily round trip to my job at a local high school is 90 miles. High gas prices can mean the end of my job. Just remember, when spouting off what our policies should be, that we are not all in the same situation.

Melinda Campbell

Arbon, Idaho

Cheap gas is less a "bad habit" than an unfortunate necessity. For 60 years now, we've built our communities based on cheap gas. We live in spread-out places where even everyday trips must be made by car. If we returned to living in our close-knit older cities and towns, we could save gas and still enjoy the SUV on weekends.

John L. Gann Jr.

Monroeville, Pa.

For the Record

As a counsel of Vujadin Popovic, who was indicted before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I was authorized to deny the allegations related to him in the article "Pensions for War Criminals" (July 25). It is not true that Popovic received $1 million or any money to turn himself in to the tribunal. Besides, the allegations that he was commander of the Drina Corps are false.

Zoran Zivanovic

Belgrade, Serbia