Actions have consequences, often unintended ones. When government policies carry unintended consequences, wreckage may follow. Take Prohibition, it didn’t stop drinking, but it did cause a massive drop in tax revenues while boosting organized crime. Or Smokey the Bear, the fire-suppression campaign led to the accumulation of dried timber and other fuels within our forests, fuels that have contributed to unprecedented wildfires.
The government’s current disaster policies have also had negative consequences. Research reveals that they leave the disadvantaged even further behind economically. With disaster damages mounting, the government needs to ensure that its policies start helping all Americans.
It won’t come as a surprise that disadvantaged people — the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the uneducated — are less prepared for disasters than those with greater advantages. Also not surprising is that the disadvantaged have less money to invest in preventing the adverse impacts caused by disasters.
For example, fewer than half of American renters purchase renter's insurance, yet almost all homeowners buy homeowner’s insurance. This means that renters face greater losses when calamity strikes. Renters often lack the resources to evacuate when storms barrel towards their homes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey for 2017, 40 percent of the 44 million renter households in the United States lack access to $2,000 to pay for evacuation expenses. The Federal Reserve has found that, when unexpected costs do arise, one out of five adults lack sufficient funds to cover an expense of $400 without selling something or borrowing money.
Despite the known challenges the disadvantaged face in coping with disasters, the U.S. government's approach to disaster aid leaves many Americans behind. NPR recently examined government recovery programs, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) practice of purchasing homes that have flooded or been damaged in natural disasters. Its analysis showed that “white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than do minorities and those with less wealth.” Similarly, recent research by Junia Howell and James Elliott of the University of Pittsburgh found that the more money FEMA gives to a county struck by disaster, the more wealth inequality grows.
The government aims to help people replace assets that are damaged in a disaster so that they can get back on their feet economically as rapidly as possible. To accomplish this, federal programs provide help in the form of low-interest loans, tax refunds and funds for home repair. So, if you own your home, have good credit scores and enjoy higher income, you have access to more recovery dollars. But if you rent your home, your income is low, you have no computer or your credit score is poor, you may be frozen out. How disaster prevention and recovery resources are designed and delivered matters as to who ends up back on their feet and who doesn’t.
In the facing of growing disasters, the disadvantaged are at risk of further losing out. Since 1980, the nation has suffered 241 disasters costing more than a billion dollars each, an average of six a year. But in recent years, thanks in part to climate change, the annual average has ballooned to 15 and is expected to continue to grow. The latest series of hurricanes and wildfires have created unprecedented demand for federal aid according to the Government Accountability Office. With the government devoting ever greater dollars to disaster recovery, how and where that money is spent becomes increasingly important. We urgently need programs that account for the challenging circumstances of the disadvantaged. If we don’t address the unequal effect recovery dollars can have, the disadvantaged will fall further and further behind.
The disparate impact caused by current federal disaster aid programs may well be unintentional. But that does not excuse our continuing down this path. The billions the nation spends in recovery should help all Americans recover quickly. With cost of disasters mounting ever more rapidly, there is no time to waste.
Alice Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She was formerly a federal prosecutor, judge, special assistant to the president and senior director for the National Security Council during the Obama administration. At the White House, she led the development of policy regarding resilience to climate change and other catastrophic risks, including developing risk management standards for resilient infrastructure. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles in The Hill.