I suspect we all have things that we don’t talk about. I knew that my mom had a mulligan marriage for 6 months when she was 17, but she and I never talked about it. My cousin’s daughter got busted for dope, but it was never much discussed at the family reunions. Similarly, no one likes to talk about poor people.

As the terrible days passed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the bursting of the levees, the streaming live pictures of the city and its inhabitants forced America to look at the reality of poverty in this great land.

While we here in Oak Park were planning which new restaurant to attend, or getting ready to see the Rolling Stones, or complaining about how our kids can only afford a condo instead of a home, night after night we saw people who had lost everything and were utterly destitute.

One woman explained that she had not evacuated because at the end of the month her monthly welfare check had diminished to six dollars. Six dollars. She had no checking account. No car. No credit cards. She had six dollars. It had never occurred to me that a person couldn’t simply drive out of New Orleans and rent a hotel room.

Another woman said that she could have left, but her invalid mother and four kids needed her, so she had stayed behind to help them.

A lot of these poor people were certainly not noble like the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath. Many of them were fat, disheveled, inarticulate and even scary, but they and their lives had been hidden from middle class scrutiny. We didn’t know about them. We didn’t want to know about them.

When we are forced to look at poverty, our psychological first line of defense is usually “Well, a lot of people have it tough, but with hard work and effort, they overcame their situation. You can do it if you just try hard enough.”

Maybe. But the little girl whose mom is on welfare and was sleeping four to a room in a now-destroyed ramshackle New Orleans apartment is going to have to try just a little harder than a lot of the other little girls.

Hurricane Katrina may have washed away New Orleans, but it exposed poverty in America.

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John Hubbuch

John is an Indiana native who moved to Oak Park in 1976. He served on the District 97 school board, coached youth sports and, more recently, retired from the law. That left him time to become a Wednesday...