Private Storm Relief Is Not Enough:
New Orleans Needs Public Services!
By Mike Howells
Ten months after the landing of Hurricane Katrina it is abundantly clear that private, volunteer efforts to help rebuild New Orleans, however well intentioned, are no substitute for the sort of mass humanitarian intervention that, this side of the revolution, only the federal government can provide the storm devastated Gulf Coast region. Despite an unprecedented outpouring of support from charities and other non-governmental organizations much of southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi lies devastated. The window of opportunity for the return of the hundreds of thousands of Katrina survivors now in exile is in danger of closing permanently even as thousands of volunteers from around the country struggle valiantly to help rebuild the region. A solution, or even a meaningful partial solution, to the monumental problems of housing, education and healthcare in the Gulf Coast area are, simply put, beyond the scope of civil society. There is, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, no private alternative. The fate of the great majority of the population of the storm devastated areas of the Gulf Coast region hangs in the balance: either they will endure a steady deterioration in their already unacceptable post-Katrina standard of living in a George W. Bush sanctified neoliberal utopia or they will conduct a successful, and no doubt difficult, struggle from below to revitalize and strengthen a currently shattered and embattled network of public services.
The decision by the rulers of the United States to not even seriously attempt to bring public services for the working class of New Orleans, on a per-capita basis, back to pre-Katrina levels is clear enough. The rate of repopulation of New Orleans’ public housing developments lags far behind the rate of repopulation of the city. While the population of New Orleans proper approaches 50% of its’ pre-Katrina level the population of the public housing community of the city is less than 20% it’s pre-Katrina level. In the area of healthcare the total number of staffed hospital beds in the city is about 33% the number existing in New Orleans before the storm. The situation regarding staffed public hospital beds is far worse. The number of staffed public hospital beds in the city is only 5% of the figure that prevailed before the storm. The downsizing of local public education, on a per-capita basis as well as in total, provides another example of the ruling class’s post-Katrina offensive against public services that cater primarily to the city’s working class. Even though, as mentioned earlier, the city’s population is roughly half its pre-Katrina level authorities in charge of New Orleans public schools plan to provide staff and facilities for the upcoming school year that are capable of servicing only a third of the pre-storm student population. Those public services that enjoy the enthusiastic support of the upper and upper middle classes, on the other hand, are fairing much better in the post-Katrina order. On a per-capita basis the number of police and firefighters in New Orleans today is higher than what existed before the storm.
The benefits that the ruling class derives from dismantling working class oriented public services are clear enough. The gutting of public education, public healthcare and public housing in the city, if allowed to remain permanent, amounts to a huge transfer of wealth from the area’s working class to the capitalist class. Under this arrangement, profit, certainly much more so than before the storm, pushes aside need as the factor that determines working class access to housing, healthcare and education. The working class winds up paying more for what it receives in private services that it had received in public services. This is not all. The post-Katrina gutting of local public services is inflicting a terrible blow on the area’s labor movement. The post-storm onslaught against local public education has effectively broken the city’s largest pre-Katrina labor union, the United Teachers of New Orleans. The closing of Charity Hospital has robbed the city’s labor movement of its’ largest concentration of unionized healthcare workers. The radical downsizing of local public services has national implications as well. The decimation of local public services, if left unchecked, is likely to inspire a drive to impose the “New Orleans Model” on America’s other urban centers. The main thrust of such an offensive would be to reduce public services in America’s cities to pre-New Deal conditions.
The long term success of the campaign to permanently downsize humanitarian public services in this storm devastated city requires that the spin masters of the ruling class put forward arguments that this development will somehow benefit society as a whole. The driving force behind this argument is the assumption that the private sector provides humanitarian services more efficiently than the public sector does. This assumption is valid if profitability is understood to be the most important measure of efficiency. On the other hand, this assumption is incorrect if the satisfaction of human need is recognized as the most important measure of efficiency. The major challenge for the spin masters of the ruling class is to convince at least a significant portion of the local working and middle class that the privatization of public services now underway benefits them. This is no easy trick given that the objective interests of these classes actually suffer as a consequence of the downsizing and privatization of public humanitarian services.
The storm relief work of civil society, often done with the best of intentions, is being cynically manipulated by the ruling class in a manner that provides political cover for the post-Katrina savaging of local public services. So, while thousands of public housing units sit empty, the huge mass of working class families desperately seeking shelter in the city are encouraged to contact Habitat for Humanity, not the Housing Authority of New Orleans, for affordable housing. And while Charity Hospital remains closed as a result of policy not necessity, tens of thousands of the local uninsured in need of hospital care, when they receive it all, find themselves steered into private hospitals that do not fill the healthcare vacuum caused by the shuttering of the city’s public hospital. This arrangement, for all it shortcomings, helps feed the illusion that private hospitals such as Tulane and Touro will, somehow, come to the rescue if an uninsured person in New Orleans “truly needs” hospital care. The liquidation of the local public school system, a consequence of government policy not natural catastrophe, leaves families in Orleans Parish with the bogus choice of sending their children to private schools or semi-privatized public schools. Under the guise of rejuvenating public education in New Orleans the government and its corporate bosses are strangling it.
Dovetailing the actual downsizing of local public services is a relentless propaganda campaign by the corporate media and government agents that depict private relief efforts almost exclusively in glowing terms. News broadcasts by local television stations invariably carry a story that praises the relief efforts of this or that non-governmental organization. Newspaper articles applauding private relief groups for their efforts locally are a staple of the Times-Picayune. At the local political level the Mayor and the City Council incessantly heap praise upon the good works of charities and community groups involved in the Katrina rebuilding effort. At the national level conservative think tanks closely linked to the White House, most notably the Heritage Foundation, drum up position papers maintaining that the rebuilding of New Orleans is an endeavor best led by the private sector. The propaganda apparatuses of national foundations can also be counted on to cheerlead the contributions of non-governmental organizations to the Katrina crisis. Collectively the cheerleading now underway for the humanitarian assistance of civil society groups to Katrina survivors gives the impression that help is not simply on the way but actually here. But the reality is that even with the incredible outpouring of generosity from private citizens and civil society groups since the storm humanitarian services for the people of the city are woefully inadequate. New Orleans is a city in ruins and New Orleanians are a people in despair. The good works of non-governmental organizations are not the answer to the crisis even though ruling class propagandists want the people to believe they are.
The one force in society that can resolve the shortage of human services plaguing the people of New Orleans today is the public sector, the state. Only the public sector is capable of marshalling the resources needed to fill the human services void that exists in the city. Furthermore, the public sector, for a variety of reasons, possesses a relative autonomy from the market that enables it to provide humanitarian services on a scale far beyond the scope of what the private sector can provide. But for the government to provide these services to the degree needed to bring public services back to even pre-Katrina levels would, in practice, reverse the post-storm redistribution of wealth now underway. The corporate bosses, the real estate developers and the bought off politicians now in charge of the official rebuilding process know this. But they are not about to spoil what is, in essence, a good thing for them by leading the charge to restore the public services that the lower classes of New Orleans so desperately need. What can and will compel the government to provide for the human service needs of Katrina survivors is a mass movement that raises the costs of not providing these services so high that, for the ruling class, the costs of popular unrest for the restoration of public services outweigh the benefits of keeping public services closed.
Building a mass movement that can secure a restoration of public services to, at the very least, pre-Katrina levels begins with a frank admission on the part of those individuals and groups committed to rebuilding New Orleans with justice that the volunteer efforts of civil society in themselves are not, and will not be, sufficient to bring the great majority of Katrina survivors now in exile. Only by recognizing the very real limits of what private volunteerism can, in itself, contribute to the efforts of those Katrina exiles struggling to return home will it be possible to forge the sort of mass movement that is needed in order to make the Right of Return a reality for all. This is not meant to denigrate the sincere and often heroic efforts of the tens of thousands of people active in civil society groups that have engaged in countless acts of kindness that have helped Katrina survivors, like myself. Unfortunately, this kindness is not enough. Without a restoration of public services in New Orleans to at least pre-Katrina levels, and the aim of the Right of Return Movement should be much higher, hundreds of thousands of Katrina Survivors will never return home. For this to happen the rebuilding effort must be politicized from below. Grass roots activists involved in the multitude of rebuilding efforts need to concretely integrate the struggle for the revitalization of public housing, public healthcare and public education into their activities. We need to do more than nod our heads in agreement when these demands are raised, we need to find ways to give these demands teeth. We need to be at one with the oppressed and exploited of the area in their struggle to raise demands for the restoration of public humanitarian services in a manner that the ruling class cannot afford to refuse. We need to demand, by any means necessary, that the government provide the people with the public services that they need. Private relief is not enough.