Opportunity and Inequality

"Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty. . . . We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens. . . . and this program is much more than a beginning. Rather it is a commitment. It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies."

—Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” Speech, March 1964

Poverty Statistics: Pre-Katrina

                                                        African American           White
Total population:                                       68%                       28%
Families below poverty level:                     31%                        5%
Homeowners:                                            43%                       62%
Renters:                                                    57%                       38%
Households without cars:                           35%                       15%

The table is an adapted version of data from The Brookings Institution. It can be found on the Teaching the Levees College Curriculum, or by clicking here.

These statistics demonstrate the difficulty of evacuation for many New Orleans residents, and specifically low-income African American residents. While New Orleans Mayor Nagin called for a mandatory evacuation of the city, many did not leave because evacuation required money, a vehicle, and a place to go. Without all three of these necessities, many low-income families had no choice but to remain and try and ride out the storm.

As I discuss further in the section on Structural Violence in the United States, in addition to not having the adequate resources for evacuation, residents in lower-class and poorer neighborhoods were more likely to suffer disproportionately from flooding damage. The statistics below demonstrate this trend.
Remaining house foundations, Lower 9th Ward

Race, Class, and Katrina

  • Damaged Areas: 45.8% African American
  • Damaged Areas (New Orleans): 75% African American
  • Undamaged Areas: 26.4% African American
  • Undamaged Areas (New Orleans): 46.2% African American

Housing Tenure:

  • 45.7% homes in damaged areas occupied by renters
  • 30.9% homes in undamaged areas occupied by renters

Poverty and Unemployment:
  • Poverty Rates (2004): 25.9% for women, 20% for men
  • Damaged Areas: 20.9% households under federal poverty line
  • Damaged Areas (New Orleans): 29.2% households under federal poverty line
  • Undamaged Areas: 15.3% households under federal poverty line
  • Undamaged Areas (New Orleans): 24.7% households under federal poverty line

This information is from "The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods" by Logan, John; and from the Russel Sage Foundation Study "In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina" by Pastor, Manuel, et al.

Gender Inequalities

In addition to the poor and disadvantaged, women were disproportionately affected by the storm.

"Gender inequality plays an important role in the level of vulnerability to natural disasters and their consequences. Women are more vulnerable during disasters because they have less access to resources, are victims of the gendered division of labor, and they are the primary caregivers to children, the elderly and the disabled. This means that they are less able to mobilize resources for rehabilitation, more likely to be over-represented in the unemployed following a disaster, and overburdened with domestic responsibilities leaving them with less freedom to pursue sources of income to alleviate their economic burdens. It is most often the women who go without food in order to feed their families during a disaster, also. In addition to these issues, women are often the victims of domestic and sexual violence following a natural disaster."
—Rochelle Jones, Gender and Natural Disasters: Points to Ponder, Disaster Watch

Unfortunately, the experience of women in New Orleans is not unique. Rather, it is reflective of a universal gender gap that contributes to the suffering of women around the world:

"And yet there is another equally important and starkly apparent social dimension to the hurricane disaster that media coverage has put in front of our eyes but that has yet to be “noticed”: This disaster fell hard on one side of the gender line too. Most of the trapped survivors are women. Women with children, women on their own, elderly women in wheelchairs, women everywhere—by a proportion of what looks to be . . . somewhere around 75 or 80 percent. . . . The gender gap is no surprise, or shouldn’t be. Disaster is seldom gender neutral. In the 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake, 1.5 times more women died than men; in the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, death rates for women across the region averaged three to four times that of men."
—Joni Seager, “Natural Disasters Expose Gender Divides,” Chicago Tribune, September 14, 2005

As these statistics and quotes demonstrate, women, minorities, and the poor suffered disproportionately from the storm and subsequent flooding.

For more on these trends, see the page Structural Violence in the United States.

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