Social capital and the New Orleans evacuation

by Rob Horning

12 September 2005


This New Republic story by Noam Schreiber illustrates perfectly the implications of the habitus. Poor people aren’t middle class people without money. They develop an entirely different approach to life because of the conditions under which they are raised. Schreiber, citing a New York Times story about the very different evacuations of a white middle class family and a black underclass family, illustrates it thus:

What’s fascinating are the ways in which the two families navigated, or failed to navigate, the crisis. The matriarch of the middle-class family, a local court clerk, tapped a cousin to secure a low corporate rate at the Lafayette Hilton. She paid for it with her American Express card. The woman then worked connections in local government and churches to land a scarce rental property. She even won a dispensation from local authorities to sneak back into her abandoned house in a quarantined area so she could rescue some televisions and furniture.
Needless to say, the poorer family had no such advantages. The husband had never been out of New Orleans before; the wife had never flown on a plane. Neither appeared to have contacts capable of assimilating them into another community; in any case, the concept of doing so seemed altogether unimaginable to them. And, while the family had $2,000 in savings, they didn’t have a bank account. Their money burned up along with their apartment in a fire that followed the flood.ʊ
Clearly, a lack of money is far from the only handicap afflicting the poor. They lack the basic life skills, social networks, and general sense of agency that even the slightly more affluent—working-class people—take for granted. The poor black family in Wilgoren’s piece certainly could have benefited from a car or a few hundred dollars in aid. But much more valuable would have been instructions beforehand on how to open a bank account. Everyone else learns these sorts of things by following the example of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The problem with acute concentrations of poverty is that they afford few such examples.

What Bourdieu calls social capital, the competence to operate within society so it works to your advantage, and the access to connections to facilitate your moves through it and buffer you in emergencies, is what middle class people have and poor people do not. What remains unclear is how to shift social capital to those who need it to literally survive in emergencies, especially in the era of Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Ideally, redistributing social capital would not be a zero-sum game—one doesn’t need to give up what another acquires. But underlying social capital is capital of the more basic sort, the cold hard cash that allows one to meet certain levels of social acceptability. Socila capital gains part of its value from positionality—networking connections are valuable because they are restricted; the more people someone knows, the less those people can help each of their acquaintances. Social capital is ultimately concentrated, transmuted hard capital—it’s value is money multiplied by time and convention and tradition; to inculcate a population with the sense of entitlement that comes with money is much more expensive than simple cash transfers. Which is why FEMA was down on the Gulf coast handing out $2,000 debit cards.


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