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America's underclass exposed

Pockets of poverty in the US are relatively small - but New Orleans shows history's repeated negligence.

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Live, in color, and beamed into our homes 24 hours a day, Americans have been dying. The ill, untended and desperate; the young mothers, staggering out of the Convention Center, clinging to hollow-eyed babies; the elderly, trapped in attics, calling for help that won't be coming; and the corpses, floating in fetid water.

If the storm was a Category 4 when it made landfall, the images left in its wake are Category 5 or more. They have the power to topple not buildings but myths, so deeply rooted in the American landscape that they've begun to seem permanent.

Katrina has reminded us that we have neighbors, most often people of color, living in poverty. They are part of the underclass, always in harm's way and far more likely to suffer during disasters that we somehow still insist on mislabeling "natural."

The chorus of outraged questions we're hearing are pointed and persistent: How can this be happening in the United States?

Are we so close, suddenly, to tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh, despite the geographic and socioeconomic gulf separating us from such a distant place?

The images we're confronting might lead us to blurt out an embarrassed "yes."

But the answer actually is more complicated. We have relatively small pockets of poverty in our cities and scattered across the countryside - small, at least when compared with the developing world. But these pockets are big enough: slightly more than 12 percent of our population overall; a bit higher than that in the South, our poorest region; close to 25 percent among African-Americans; still higher, 34 percent, for New Orleans, our ninth poorest and one of our most African-American cities (approximately 70 percent).

In the wake of Katrina we've been forced to grapple with the poverty in our backyard. Perhaps this is because the nettlesome images come from a submerged New Orleans, a city with such an enduring grip on the American imagination. Or maybe we are so shaken because so many of the faces we see suffering belong to African-Americans, highlighting, yet again, our greatest unresolved dilemma: the problem of race.

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