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Recovery aid can't erode personal responsibility

Just as natural as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards wanting to raise taxes, so are complaints about the federal government’s role and response to natural disasters such as the flooding inundating the Baton Rouge region last month. It helps to understand just what obligations it should have in order to gauge what should happen.

As immediate rescue gives way to recovery, some state elected officials have begun lamenting what they see as slow federal government action. Even Democrat Edwards, knowing that any criticism reflects upon a Democrat Pres. Barack Obama administration, has begun cautious chiding of the pace of the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the American Red Cross, contracted with the federal government to provide relief activities. A few others, mostly mayors of affected municipalities, have joined him and voiced trepidation that Congress will not move fast enough nor sufficiently far enough to repair matters.

Herein lies the confusion. Up until the hurricane disasters of 2005, the ethos of government responsibility for acts of nature never included the notion that government should make people whole. Instead, it would provide transitory assistance for individuals and long-term aid to rebuild public infrastructure, but people would have to rely upon their own good sense to live lifestyles that anticipated the odd tragedy here or there and thusly to husband resources to compensate if and when that time came.

Then, particularly the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina produced several aspects that confused this calculus. First, the disaster’s immense scope dwarfed any prior catastrophe of the immediately preceding decades (tragedies that killed more and did relatively more damage, such as the Johnstown flood of 1889, the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, came decades prior to the conception that the federal government should take more than a passing role in providing immediate relief and intermediate recovery).

Second, government activity or inactivity, relative to the benign neglect and design shortcomings of the federal government concerning the levees and the misgoverned flood control policy of state and local government, meant that government bore some culpability in degrading people’s lives. Third, perhaps no area in the country contained a population that had grown so dependent upon government to provide for so much in their lives as had New Orleans, with among too many in its population a stunted acceptance of personal responsibility for the conduct of their lives and a local government and politicians that catered to that warped belief.

These combined to forge a new template for disaster response, echoes of which resounded from the federal response to Hurricane Sandy four years ago. In short, there grew a belief among many policy-makers that if a natural disaster like this occurred, individuals bore reduced if any responsibility for preparation for it and thus costs for their reparation must be socialized. Fed by the long-term erosion of certain Depression-era beliefs, such as always have savings of at least three months, if not six, of living expenses and insuring everything you have to its full value against any catastrophe before you bought a new car, cell phone, television, pair of sneakers etc., and compounded by Obama and other elected Democrats encouraging consumers of public assistance to blame the economic producers paying for it for a host of societal ills that required the latter to forfeit more of what they earn, the anticipation that government must provide all in these situations has grown.

When over four-fifths of all American households report fewer than $1,000 in savings (and median retirement savings for those with any banked away of only $60,000) despite a median family household income of over $53,000 annually but with average debt (excluding debt-free ones) of $131,000 of which around $16,000 is credit card bills owed, it’s clear that a present orientation of living for today has taken root at the expense of a future orientation that saves for opportunities and challenges down the road. This mentality has crept into thinking about disaster policy that deemphasizes personal responsibility, which serves to transfer these costs to the rest of society.

Thus comes these raised expectations from Louisiana state and local policy-makers now beginning to carp about FEMA’s and Congress’ response. Obviously when warranted FEMA’s feet must be held to the fire, and Congress should provide enough funding to get people back on their feet and to award a down payment on reconstructing their lives. Yet anything more only strengthens the disturbing trend that fuels the socially expensive attitude of living for today at the expense of planning for tomorrow.

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