Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Has Charity for Katrina Victims Dried Up?

Do we have limited attention spans? In the aftermath of a shock such as the Tsunami or Katrina, people feel generous and give. As the media moves on and devotes less attention to the issue, does this have a causal effect on reducing popular support for helping the people who bore the brunt of the shock?

The New York Times today reports that FEMA is going to stop paying hotel bills for the storm victims. I presume that billions of tax payer dollars will be spent fortifying the levees and other infrastructure to protect New Orleans from future shocks. It is an interesting question to ask what does the nation "owe" the New Orleans poor who didn't run from this shock to help them make a life transition? If the New York Times and other media leaders continued to devote space to this story would there be greater political support for continuing to redistribute income to the Katrina poor?

If the media does play such an important role in determining what issues we prioritize, then it would be important to understand how key media outlets such as the New York Times choose what will be on their Front Page each day. How do they prioritize? Does this represent the editor's tastes? What he thinks will interest his median reader? What he thinks is truly important? Does he worry about diminishing returns to focusing on any one topic or does he believe there are increasing returns to hammering on a specific topic such as running article after article on a specific topic.

I recognize that there are "chicken and egg" issues here. Does the New York Times stop covering an issue because it is bored or because it thinks its readers are no board with the topic?

If people have a finite capacity to "emote" for others, then there still remains the issue of chain reactions. If you want to help the Katrina affected poor, how do you set off a chain reaction to create a social movement such that middle class tax payers are willing to spend their money to help?

November 16, 2005
FEMA Is Set to Stop Paying Hotel Cost for Storm Victims

JACKSON, Miss., Nov. 15 - The Federal Emergency Management Agency moved Tuesday to nudge victims of Hurricane Katrina toward self-sufficiency, announcing that it would cut off financing for most of the 60,000 families in government-paid hotel and motel rooms by the end of this month.

The deadline, three months after the hurricane struck, will bring the agency's assistance packages more into line with the customary array of federal disaster aid.

"There are still too many people living in hotel rooms, and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays," the agency's acting director, R. David Paulison, said in a statement. "Across the country, there are readily available, longer-term housing solutions for these victims that can give greater privacy and stability than hotel and motel rooms."

The cutoff will come in two phases. In the first, payments for hotel rooms occupied by about 50,000 of the families will end on Dec. 1. In the second, an apartment shortage in Louisiana and Mississippi has led the agency to give the 12,000 families living in hotels in those two states until Jan. 7 to move out, or assume the cost on their own.

Assuming that their permanent homes still cannot be occupied, FEMA will offer people in both of those groups temporary-housing rental assistance worth an average of $786 a month. That is less than half what hotels have been costing the government in a typical month.

Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency's caseworkers, as well as charities that it is helping to finance, would assist these families in the search for housing.

"We are just trying to help people move on," Ms. Andrews said.

But Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on a House panel that oversees housing issues related to the hurricane, said FEMA was not giving the families enough warning.

"Two weeks' notice is outrageous," Mr. Frank said. "These are not people who can easily find alternative accommodations."

The agency has also notified state and local governments that it plans to end financing on March 1 for a program, set up in about two dozen cities, through which apartments have been rented on behalf of storm victims. Houston alone has issued 39,500 vouchers for evacuee families, costing the federal government more than $100 million.

The goal of this program was to speed the move from shelters or motels into more stable housing. But FEMA wants to get out of the business of directly financing the rental of apartments. The agency has told state and local governments that as of this week, they can no longer sign leases of more than three months. As of Dec. 1, they will no longer be able to sign any new leases. And finally, as of March 1 the government is to stop paying for all outstanding leases, although FEMA officials said Tuesday that state and municipal authorities would be permitted to apply for extensions.

It remains unclear what will happen in cities like Houston, where officials have signed many yearlong leases for evacuees from the storm.

None of this prevents victims from using direct aid from FEMA - the $786 a month on average - to rent apartments or assume control of leases that the state or local government has initially rented on their behalf. Housing aid for these families will last up to 18 months; a total of $1.2 billion in such aid has been given to more than 500,000 families so far.