After all that has happened over the past six years, why would FEMA want to fleece the Katrina victims?
Hurricane season is now upon us, and with climate change a daily reality, storms are expected to increase in frequency and intensity. The devastating tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri is a testament to this new reality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predicts as many as 18 storms for this year, of which 10 could become hurricane grade.
It goes without saying that the folks at FEMA have their work cut out for them. The agency, which oversees disaster relief, still faces a public relations problem over its incompetent and slow response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the formaldehyde-laden trailers provided as temporary housing for the displaced victims, and the mismanagement in doling out disaster payments to residents who lost their homes, their possessions and their livelihood. This backdrop makes it even more perplexing that the agency would now demand that some of the Katrina victims return the money they received from FEMA.
FEMA says it made mistakes and overpaid and mistakenly awarded victims of Katrina and Rita in 2005. The agency is scouring the over $600 million it gave to 154,000 people, under 10 percent of the $7 billion in FEMA aid under its individual assistance program. Already, the agency has sent letters to thousands of people, asking them to cough up over $22 million. This recall effort does not apply to other big-ticket disaster programs that were the beneficiaries of federal funds.
On a superficial level, we can try to understand the context, the backdrop if you will, under which this latest FEMA move is taking place. Times are tough, budget cuts are all the rage, and government austerity measures are trendy. On the local and federal level, vital programs and services face deep cuts, as Americans are told they must tighten their belts, and do more with less. So, it only makes sense that government bureaucracies identify cost-saving and revenue-enhancing measures, right? Hold on a minute.
For the disproportionately poor and African-American residents of New Orleans, this new demand by FEMA is nothing more than double punishment for people who already have suffered enough, and have suffered too much. Regarded by FEMA as little more than Third World refugees in 2005, they were victims of shoddy levees, and a slow response from a government that did a “heckuva job Brownie,” as then-President Bush said of his FEMA chief Michael Brown, a former horse show judge. Many people lost everything in the floods, and when they received a payment form FEMA — and many did not — it wasn’t enough.
Even today, six years after Katrina and Rita struck, there are areas that are still waiting for help. In any case, the recipients of the disaster relief funds used that money to live, to buy food. Forcing them to return the money is another form of victimization. And if there were victims who were improperly compensated, chalk up the expenses to government incompetence.
But there is a larger issue at play. The millions of dollars that FEMA seeks to recover, although a lot for those needy recipients, are but a drop in the bucket compared how much this nation needlessly wastes or refuses to collect. Apparently, disaster victims, the unemployed, the working poor, welfare recipients and black and Latino children in crumbling inner city schools are some of the easy targets these days. Under government austerity measures, not everyone is asked to sacrifice, and additional suffering is imposed upon those who are least able to bear it.
Certainly the Pentagon isn’t suffering, with $1.26 trillion in total spending to date on the arguably senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan will cost the U.S. $113 billion this year, and another $107 billion next year.
And no one has asked Wall Street to tighten their belts either, even as they brought the nation to the brink of economic catastrophe. Goldman Sachs was awarded a $10 billion government bailout, and paid a paltry 1 percent in taxes. Citibank used some of its $50 billion in bailout money, and Bank of America used some of its $25 billion, to lobby against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would bolster labor rights.
Offshore tax havens cost taxpayers $100 billion a year, and many corporations pay an effective tax rate of zero, as an effort to repeal $20 billion in unnecessary subsidies to oil companies over 10 years was defeated in the Senate. Tax rates– are at historic lows, and are even lower under Obama than under Reagan.
The president’s deal with the Republicans extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans for two years and reduced the estate tax at a cost of $130 billion. And the Ryan budget proposal cuts Medicare, food stamps and Pell Grants as it lowers the tax rate for the richest Americans to 25 percent — the lowest in 80 years.
Meanwhile, in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in March, 81 percent of people support tax increases for millionaires as they reject the slashing of entitlements and other programs. The poll also found that 76 percent of Americans support wasteful Pentagon spending, while 74 percent support cutting subsidies to oil and gas companies, and 68 percent favor eliminating the Bush tax cuts.
So, in light of all of this, why is FEMA picking on poor little Katrina victims? There are billions, if not trillions of dollars that could be recovered from tax dodgers, the exceptionally wealthy and the military — all for the sake of deficit reduction. Why is Uncle Sam obsessed with a few million dollars in aid, which amounts to the functional equivalent of pocket change by comparison? Why go after Uncle Ray who only wanted to have his house repaired? Because it is much easier to go after the low-hanging fruit. Besides, down-and-out black folks in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans don’t have lobbyists, but oil giants and the banks do.