Friday, September 09, 2005

Katrina's "Silver Lining"?

In yesterday's New York Times, David Brooks notes that a "natural experiment" is about to unfold. The Urban poor in New Orleans have been expelled from their old life. He seems to be optimistic that their quality of life could improve in the long run relative to their pre-hurricane experience.

"That's because Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.

It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs, and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn't working. We need to be realistic about how much we can actually change human behavior, but it would be a double tragedy if we didn't take advantage of these unique circumstances to do something that could serve as a spur to antipoverty programs nationwide.

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor."

I HAVE SOME questions for David Brooks.

1. Where should the expelled urban poor live? Will he welcome them to his neighborhood? Would he subsidize their housing such that they can afford to live in his neighborhood?

2. Would he support housing vouchers such that the urban poor can afford the rent in communities where the rent is higher? Obviously, where rents are higher quality of life and local amenities are higher.

Clearly David Brooks is hoping that the New Orleans shock is so salient with the middle and upper class that these fortunate groups are willing to redistribute more in the aftermath of the shock. Do people have short memories?

3. How would David Brooks scatter the poor if he were our "benevolent planner"? Given that we don't have such a planner, will we see this group "re-segregate" even if they are given the resources to move to less poor communities?