President Bush’s Plan to Rebuild
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, five views on the president’s plan and what needs to be done. Bruce Katz was chief of staff for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration. He is now the director of metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution. Alison Fraser is director of economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. She is the former deputy director of Oklahoma’s Office of State Finance.
William Julius Wilson is the director of the joblessness and urban poverty research program and a professor of social policy at Harvard University. Mark Schleifstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And Ronnie Seaton is a chef and teacher who evacuated New Orleans a day before Katrina hit and is now in Baton Rouge. He was a chef in the White House and helped create a culinary arts school in New Orleans.
Professor Wilson, let’s start with you. What did you hear in the president’s speech last night that gives you the outlines of a plan, and what do you think of the plan?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, first of all, let me say that I was pleased that he acknowledged his responsibility for the way that things were handled in the aftermath of the hurricane disaster. And also, I think that this is the first time that Bush spoke about the, clearly, about the problems of racial inequality and persistent poverty and that these problems are related to a history of racial discrimination in the United States.
Problems of persistent poverty cannot be addressed if they are not acknowledged. And it is important for the President of the United States to acknowledge these problems and to keep the nation focused on the need to address these problems. It will be — Katrina exposed the problems of inequality and persistent poverty — and it will be, really, will be important for the president to continue to talk about these, about these problems.
Now, a criticism that I have is that the president’s speech seemed to suggest that persistent poverty is regional when we know that it is a national problem that has plagued many families in our central cities. Another concern that I had with the speech is that his proposal does not, in my judgment, really seriously address the problems of joblessness for low income people. Now, he did emphasize job training. But, you know, job training will not create jobs. He did talk about tax relief for small businesses and incentives for companies that create jobs.
But I’m concerned about people who have difficulty finding jobs in the private sector, and I would encourage, if I were writing — if I had written the speech, I would have included a few lines about the need to create public sector jobs for low income people, a job that would help in the rebuilding of the infrastructure in New Orleans.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, let me move on to Alison Fraser. What do you make of what you heard about last night?
ALISON FRASER: Well, it was really a very broad plan. There were some things I liked and some things that I’m concerned about. I was really very happy to see him call for a Gulf opportunity zone. That’s an opportunity for the federal and the state and local governments to come together and enact policies that are going to bring private investment to the area to help businesses, families and individuals rebuild their lives in the community to create jobs, and to do that quickly without government burdens and interference.
We can, perhaps, encourage our leaders at the state, local and federal level to think about waiving some of the burdensome regulations that will get in the way of rebuilding lives, families, infrastructure, homes and so forth. I was very pleased to see that.
I was also happy to see him call for getting benefits directly into the hands of the hurricane victims. That can mean they can get money more quickly and use it as they really need, as they best see fit, whether it is for child care, whether it is for job training, whether it is for housing. And that money can move with them, if they relocate to another area, if they move back to their communities, which everyone really hopes that they will do.
And I would encourage the Congress and the administration to look more broadly at using these really flexible and direct benefits, getting them directly into the hands of these folks more broadly for more housing, for education, for training and a number of things. I was pleased to see that.
I was pleased to see him call for private investment in a private role, especially in the infrastructure rebuilding. And lastly, I was very pleased to see him calling for strengthening the national response in this kind of catastrophic tragedy that we have had. I think those were very important.
On the other hand, I was very concerned because this is a huge federal commitment and a federal undertaking. And when he said, we will do whatever it takes, my concern there is that that does not translate on the part of the Congress to opening in a very unlimited way the federal piggybank. We simply cannot afford to do everything that comes into anybody’s whim and fancy.
We need to have very targeted relief directly going to the citizens and the businesses that were impacted. But as we have seen so many times in the past, we can’t have any mission creep when it comes to paying for this huge undertaking.
And lastly, the things that concerned me is that I heard about no plan to pay for this huge undertaking. What is Congress going do to pay for it? And we would call for them as a first step to look for redirecting some of the lower-priority federal funds that they have already spent.
For example, in this very, very huge and wasteful highway bill, we would call on members of Congress to make the same sacrifices that their constituents have when they have been digging into their pockets contributing to the Red Cross and other wonderful charities by giving up their earmark projects for bridges, roads and so forth, many of them — of parking structures, bike trails. I could go on and on and on. Many of them are not necessary. Some are necessary.
But we have established a huge national priority. And that’s the rebuilding of the Gulf states. Let’s start by redirecting those funds to rebuilding infrastructure in those states.
RAY SUAREZ: Ronnie Seaton you are one of the many who are not at home right now because of Hurricane Katrina. You must have watched the speech with special interest. What did you make of it?
RONNIE SEATON: I was very impressed. The president did give some direction where our country needs to go, but right now we are not feeling the effect down here. The money is not coming. It is very slow. Right now I am not sure if I want to go back to New Orleans right now. I think I might need to relocate to another city. But the programs we need, we need programs for job training for the young people. We need money to start new businesses. And we just need the support of everyone and we need the people within the city to work along with the government.
RAY SUAREZ: There’s going to be a lot of work getting done in New Orleans. If you wanted to go back, and as a chef, feed the people who are doing that work, what kind of support would you need from a program like the one unveiled last night to get going from scratch?
RONNIE SEATON: Well, we would need a training program to train young people that’s coming out of high school that might not have a direction that can go into a culinary field and use those same people to help feed the people that’s working down there, that’s trying to build because this is going to be a long-range project.
And then those young people become taxpayers. And then they become, building up a support base and become the future of our new, New Orleans.
RAY SUAREZ: Bruce Katz, what did you make of the speech?
BRUCE KATZ: Well, like Professor Wilson, I was very pleased that the president focused on the deep racial and class divide in New Orleans. But to be frank, I was very surprised by the redevelopment initiatives that he put on the table which I felt fell far short of what’s going to be needed to build a competitive healthy and viable city to break up the concentrations of poverty, to break up those federal enclaves of poverty which existed in the city and to really give these low income residents more choice and opportunity.
I think the urban homesteading initiative that he put on the table handing over land, essentially -
RAY SUAREZ: Gives people promise to build on it.
BRUCE KATZ: Exactly – is a fairly marginal response to what is a scale of devastation that we have not seen in this country for some period of time. Where is the land? How are people earning less than $10,000 going to support the building of a home, the payment of a mortgage, the maintenance of the home? Is this going to lock in some of the same patterns of poverty that we have seen before?
The fact is that we know how to create economically integrated communities in this country. And I was surprised that the president did not call on what is really the most sophisticated housing finance and development system in the world to come to the table and to contribute the tax credits with other incentives to build a completely different New Orleans.
RAY SUAREZ: So the same set of proposals that Alison Fraser was a little bothered by because they promised as much as it takes for as long as it takes, you say don’t go far enough?
BRUCE KATZ: I don’t think they go far enough. The question is not whether we rebuild New Orleans, but how do we do it. And I agree with her, that we have to do it in a fiscally responsible way. But we know how to do this. And I don’t think what we have done yet has really tapped the depth of expertise in this country, particularly with regard to the rebuilding effort.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Schleifstein, you have written for a long time about the environment of that area, the Mississippi Delta. The president did take some time to talk about how it is difficult but feasible to rebuild New Orleans in particular. What did you make of his words?
MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, there were a couple of things missing. The two key ones were that he did not mention whether or not he plans to support the construction of a Category Five hurricane protection system, which would be a very expensive proposition. And the other key thing that he didn’t talk about was the coastal restoration program, another thing that state leaders and environmental groups and also scientists say will help keep down the storm surge of future storms. Both of those are very, very expensive propositions that haven’t been addressed at all.
Hopefully, as a homeowner, you know, my house had eight to ten feet of water in it, the thing that I want to know is whether or not what he is planning on doing will allow me to rebuild somewhere in the city in a way that at least protects me from a Category Three hurricane in the future, or from just from basic rainstorms, which means raising my house up above the flood plain. I am at eight feet below zero. He sort of hinted that that needed to be done and he said it in terms of building codes and zoning ordinances. But there needs to be more than that. It will cost a heck of a lot of money to fill the city if they actually went that direction — to put dirt on the bottom to raise things up and it would cost individual homeowners a fortune to build their houses, their new houses on stilts. And I don’t know if either the FEMA flood insurance program or private insurance is going to help underwrite that cost.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there any, Professor Wilson, way to make a programmatic response – can the president unveil a plan that really addresses what you wanted to hear, that is that attention to race and class but in actual plans, in bricks and mortars, and rebuilding?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, you know, there are only so many things that he can talk about in the 30-minute speech. But one thing he could have emphasized is that requiring companies that have received contracts to rebuild New Orleans, requiring them to hire a local people in jobs that match their skills and training. That’s a very, very concrete proposal that he could introduce.
Another thing, it would have been good if he had talked about the need to ensure that the placement of families in New Orleans does not reproduce the levels of concentrated poverty that existed before. So I would just like to underline what Bruce Katz was saying and that is that we do have evidence that there is moving families to lower poverty neighborhoods and school districts can have significant positive effects.
RAY SUAREZ: Alison Fraser, should that be part of the interest of any master plan, to break up those high concentrations of poverty, or should there be more of an organic response — put the forces in motion to rebuild and see who comes back?
ALISON FRASER: I would really argue for the more organic forces. You know, Bruce said very well that the New Orleans that we’re going to see in five months and five years is not going to be anything like the New Orleans that we saw five weeks ago. And what I think is so attractive about these, the, you know, the opportunity zone that the president has called for, is I think there is great opportunity for the public and private sectors to come together to look to new and innovative ways to rebuild the cities, not only New Orleans but all of the Gulf coast communities that were so devastated by this hurricane.
That being said, you know, I think that we need to look towards creative ways to addressing some of these very issues, and it was really a tragic event that the hurricane picked, you know, the city of New Orleans to really, you know, focus some of these issues on the attention of the American people.
But, again, I think it is very important that we not have a top-down government-led response to who builds what kind of housing, where it’s built, who hires whom. I really think it is important for the communities, for businesses, for individuals, for entrepreneurs to come together to form this unique response that we’re going to see as the area rebuilds.
RAY SUAREZ: Ronnie Seaton, last night, the president said there’s no way to imagine America without New Orleans. Tell us why he would say that and why people in Minnesota or Oregon or California should be concerned and want New Orleans to be rebuilt.
RONNIE SEATON: Well, you know, New Orleans is a city of old history, old culture; we are known for our music. We are known for our food. It is a tourist location. And it is a part of history that you just can’t write off. And I’m sure that’s what the president was trying to give out is that, you know, there’s hope for New Orleans. We need to keep New Orleans going: Mardi Gras, Super Bowls, Jazz Fest. You know, it’s just a lot of history that you can’t just wash away with water. So I think the president wants to bring it back, let everybody know that New Orleans will be built again, strong, or even better as he said.
RAY SUAREZ: So do we have some choices to make? Might there be a smaller, more middle class city that rises from the ashes of this old one?
BRUCE KATZ: I think the city will be smaller and I’m not sure if that’s the worst thing in the world. I think we have an opportunity here to have a win-win. I think we have an opportunity to build a very different kind of city, a city with a much greater mix of incomes. And, at the same time, we have the opportunity, if we have the right principles and we have the right tools to give many of those low income families the ability to live in neighborhoods, whether in the city, whether in the suburbs, whether in other parts of the state or in other parts of the country, live in neighborhoods where they have access to good schools, safe streets and quality jobs. That did not exist in New Orleans before this hurricane. And to some extent it didn’t exist because the federal government had created enclaves of poverty with public housing and subsidized economy and so forth.
I think what I didn’t hear last night was the set of principles of a commitment of a different kind of city, and the tools were interesting. They were not as substantial as I thought they should be. But it is what kind of vision does the federal government have? We know what works in cities and we know what works in metropolitan areas, and we should not try to repeat the mistakes of the past.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Schleifstein, however the planning comes out at the end, did the president’s speech last night, the presence of 14 members of the U.S. Senate in the city, in your city today, show you that there is wind in the sails, and one way or another, this is going to happen?
MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, it showed me that there’s good intent. The proof is in the pudding. We are going to have to see what Congress does with all of this before we’re really convinced. It’s such a huge undertaking. And the reality is that if, you know, there are so many different facets to this — If we don’t get Ronnie back into the city, if we don’t get the minority middle class back into the city, then New Orleans is not New Orleans. If we don’t get the housing back, there will be no place for people to live. If we don’t get the tourist industry back, New Orleans doesn’t exist.
RONNIE SEATON: That’s right.
MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: And if we don’t get the port facilities and oil and gas production going again on the gulf coast, the economy and the nation will really suffer. And all of that is what New Orleans is really about.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Schleifstein and all my other guests, thanks very much.