March 8, 2006
Hurricane Katrina did not raise nation's awareness of poverty, inequality, scholars say
By Lisa Trei
Contrary to a popular theme reported in news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 Gulf Coast disaster did not reveal to most Americans that widespread poverty and inequality are the nation's "dirty little secret."
Rather, most Americans were aware of these problems before they were highlighted by the devastation of Katrina, according to a new study by Stanford sociologists. As a result, the event did not become a watershed in the debate over poverty, as some pundits have claimed. In fact, awareness of poverty and inequality actually decreased among some groups of Americans after Katrina, suggesting that some people may have reacted negatively to news coverage by what they claimed to be a "liberally biased media," according to the study, "Did Katrina Recalibrate Attitudes Toward Poverty and Inequality? A Test of the 'Dirty Little Secret' Hypothesis."
The paper, co-authored by sociology Professor David Grusky and doctoral student Emily Ryo, will be published in the spring edition of the Du Bois Review. Lawrence Bobo, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor, co-edits the 2-year-old, peer-reviewed journal on race in the social sciences. The forthcoming issue, which also includes a paper by education Professor Emeritus John Baugh, will be wholly devoted to new research related to Katrina.
Grusky and Ryo based their findings on data from the 2004 and 2005 Maxwell Polls on Civic Engagement and Inequality based at Syracuse University. The nationally representative surveys, which included a comprehensive list of questions on poverty and inequality, were conducted in October 2004 and October 2005. Taking place just after Hurricane Katrina, the latter poll allowed the researchers to gauge how attitudes changed following the disaster. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of the U.S. adult population claims to have paid "very close attention" to news about Katrina, making it the fifth most closely watched story in the last 20 years. "It follows that Katrina had the potential to recalibrate public ideologies in ways far more profound than, say, the release of yet another government report on inequality and poverty," Grusky and Ryo write in the study.
According to the researchers, journalists broached many themes in their coverage of the disaster, but a common one was that Katrina cast a fresh light on the depth and extent of poverty in America. Ryo uncovered this popular theme during an online search of national and local newspaper and broadcast reporting on the disaster, which, she wrote, was summed up by a poverty expert quoted in Newsday on Oct. 2, 2005: "There has been a pulling back of the veil that hides poverty in America.
All of a sudden, people are saying, 'Do we really have that level of poverty here? Are there people really trying to hold families together with substandard education, living in substandard housing and with no financial resources to fall back on?'"
Ryo, a fourth-year graduate student, said that after Katrina she, too, had accepted the premise that Americans had been "completely unaware" of the size of these problems. "It's easy to buy into the story that if only we had known about the extent of poverty in America, we would have buckled down and taken care of it," she said in an interview.
The sociologists classified participants in the Maxwell survey according to:
Their level of knowledge about poverty and inequality; Whether they thought that inequality and poverty were social problems; Whether they thought something should be done about these problems and, particularly, whether government action should be taken.
From these categories, four groups emerged with coherent ideologies, which the sociologists described as "activists" (strong supporters of state intervention to reduce poverty), "realists" (skeptical of the state's ability and responsibility to reduce poverty and inequality), "moralists" (do not characterize poverty and inequality as important problems) and "deniers" (allege that poverty and inequality are neither growing nor substantial problems). The study also included two groups described as "uninformed activists" and "uninformed realists," and two very small groups that gave incoherent responses.
According to these classifications, in October 2004, "activists" made up 58 percent of respondentsa large majority. "Realists" made up 6 percent of participants, no one was classified as a "moralist," and 21 percent were classified as "deniers." At the same time, 6 percent of people were classified as "uninformed activists" and 5 percent were "uninformed realists."
A year later, shortly after Katrina, "activists" had increased slightly to 60 percent but "realists" had jumped to 11 percent and "moralists" made an appearance at 1 percent. The "denier" class had also risen to 25 percent, perhaps in response to criticism of popular media coverage, Grusky said. "The rise of the 'realist' and 'denier' classes also suggests that Katrina was an object lesson in the ineptitude and inefficiency of government programs," the authors write. But what was most striking was that the two uninformed groups from 2004, which made up 11 percent of respondents, virtually disappeared after Katrina, Grusky said in an interview. "We do see a growing awareness of poverty and inequality in the disappearance of the [uninformed] classes, groups that were unaware of these problems before Katrina and were susceptible to its lessons," he said. "They are the groups for which it was a 'dirty little secret.'"
According to Grusky and Ryo, "the coverage of Katrina is fascinating precisely because it converted a conventional story about a natural disaster into an unconventional and high-profile story about the socially constructed disasters of poverty, inequality and racism." As a result, the question emerges about why there is such an underdeveloped response to these issues since it is clear that most Americans know about them. The authors conclude that, for most people, the problems are only "side commitments" and, as a result, politicians are not forced to address them. "There has to be a deeply felt 'master commitment' to create a strong incentive for politicians to translate public sentiment into policy," Grusky said.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards touched upon the growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" with his "two Americas" platform. Although Edwards eventually lost, Grusky and Ryo said he selected a theme that resonated with many Americans. "There's a lot more we can do as scholars, activists and politicians to galvanize people, especially after a big event like [Katrina], to change the landscape regarding how people approach poverty and inequality," Ryo said. "It could be a turning point, but it hasn't happened yet."
In the paper, Grusky and Ryo argue that inequality and poverty could attract stronger public support as part of a future refashioned liberal agenda. The issues could be framed, for example, within the framework that poverty is rife with externalities, such as high rates of drug use, crime and costly incarceration, high health care costs, and much forgone productivity and lowered gross national product, they write.
Just as environmental concerns have been brought into the mainstream by framing them within issues such as "global warming," so, too, could poverty and inequality be developed into mainstream ideologies by emphasizing that costs are collectively borne by society, Grusky and Ryo assert. "The coverage of Katrina, for all its shortcomings, may be understood as consistent with this renewed appreciation of how poverty, inequality and racism color almost everything, even how a natural disaster plays out," the authors write.