Harvey Streets

Harvey once again raises the justice vs. charity issue

It’s like clockwork. A disaster occurs and the airwaves are full of appeals for help from all of us who are clearly more fortunate than those who have been stricken.

It seems natural, and the right thing to do. For anyone with an ounce of empathy, responding with some form of help is the correct thing to do.

But the carnage of Hurricane Harvey once again raises a fundamental question. Why are we so accepting of the concept of being so charitable in response to a disaster, all the while we accept an unjust government which is sluggish to respond.

There are two key reasons why we should first look to the government:

  1. Only the government has the resources to provide all that is needed. Not only does the government have the capacity to raise and spend the necessary $100 billion or more, it can provide ongoing support because if necessary, it can borrow more money. Please don’t say that it is improper or impossible for the government to borrow. After all, we’ve already gone in the red to the tune of over $19 trillion to fight wars of questionable benefit and to ensure that the wealthy not pay their fair share of taxes.
  2. The government has the infrastructure through FEMA, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to properly respond. The government also has a long history of partnering with non-profits such as the Red Cross to bring more resources on board to deal with disasters.

Donations from the private sector can be helpful, primarily to those who give and then feel a sense of connectedness and having done “the right thing.” They can supplement.

But to have the government stuck in quagmire because Republican legislators say that the only way that the money can be spent is to have off-set spending elsewhere is mean, counter-productive and not in the interests of either those struck by the disaster or those who are removed from the initial consequences.

This is nothing new. House Majority Leader opposed aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Former Congressman and now Director of the Budget Mick Mulvaney opposed similar aid to those struck by Super-storm Sandy in 2012 (as did the two current senators from Texas where Harvey did its most damage).

If they have such objections to deficit spending, then raise taxes on the wealthy. Also, put in place a reasonable plan whereby the federal government literally and figuratively has a rainy-day fund for such occurrences. While we’re at it, we better give it funding on steroids to pay for the consequences of ignoring the effects of climate change.

Let’s not fool ourselves and say that responses by the federal government are without troubles. The more than two million non-military employees of the federal government include many who are not effective workers, or who do not always have concerns with the common good. Our maze of bureaucracies often makes coordination difficult.

But if it is more clearly understood that the way to respond to a Harvey is through a well-prepared and well-funded federal government, we can provide the most comprehensive response to these disasters.

The federal government must also take steps to help communities take necessary steps to minimize future disasters. This includes recognizing the reality of climate change, insisting in urban planning be integrated with environmental planning, and simply not over-building in vulnerable areas.

Do not hesitate to give to charities, particularly if it gives you a good feeling. But do not forget that the only reasonable, responsible and realistic way to react to the disasters is through a comprehensive federal response. It’s called democracy.

  • Stacy Mergenthal

    Absolutely. We often hear the argument that any effective response to global warming will cost trillions of dollars that we cannot afford to spend. But we are spending that on disaster relief/cleanup that can be largely avoided by reducing global warming! Mind boggling. How many horrifying disasters will we endure before we commit to meaningful efforts at curbing global warming? As a regular volunteer, I would much rather work to avoid putting people in the position of needing charity in the first place because it means much less suffering in the world.

    It is true that people want to help and I love that charitable spirit. You are right, though. The government is designed and set up to respond in these situations. We can make a solid argument that it is, indeed, one of its primary purposes and our tax contributions pay for that. Great point, as always.