Conservatives have already used the storm for causes of their own, like suspending requirements that federal contractors have affirmative action plans and pay locally prevailing wages. And with federal costs for rebuilding the Gulf Coast estimated at up to $200 billion, Congressional Republican leaders are pushing for spending cuts, with programs like Medicaid and food stamps especially vulnerable.
"We've had a stunning reversal in just a few weeks," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "We've gone from a situation in which we might have a long-overdue debate on deep poverty to the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that low-income people will be asked to bear the costs. I would find it unimaginable if it wasn't actually happening."
Mr. Greenstein's comments were echoed by Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut: "Poor people are going to get the short end of the stick, despite all the public sympathy. That's a great irony."
But many conservatives see logic, not irony, at work. If the storm exposed great poverty, they say, it also exposed the problems of the very policies that liberals have supported.
"This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway," said Stuart M. Butler, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group influential on Capitol Hill.
While the right has proposed alternatives including tax-free zones for businesses and school vouchers for students, Mr. Butler said, "the left has just talked up the old paradigm: 'let's expand what's failed before.' "
Doubt about the effectiveness of some programs is only one factor shaping the current antipoverty debate. Another is political muscle: poor people do not make campaign contributions. Many do not even vote.
A third factor is the federal deficit, which leaves little money for new initiatives. And a fourth is the continuing support for tax cuts, including those aimed at the wealthiest Americans, which further limits spending on social programs.
Indeed, even as he was calling for deep spending cuts last week, Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, who leads the conservative caucus, called tax reductions for the prosperous a key to fighting poverty.
"Raising taxes in the wake of a national catastrophe would imperil the very economic growth we need to bring the Gulf Coast back," Mr. Pence said. "I'm mindful of what a pipe fitter once said to President Reagan: 'I've never been hired by a poor man.' A growing economy is in the interest of every working American, regardless of their income."
Ah yes. The Reagan years, a period of great economic prosperity. No, sorry, those were the Clinton years. These were the Reagan years.