FEMA Disaster Assistance Often Widens Racial Disparities
Research published in 2018 found that, for white Americans, living in a county hit by a major disaster was a financial boon. These white residents have not only seen their wealth grow – it has grown five times more, on average, than the wealth of white residents in counties without major disasters, according to research by Dr. Elliott and Junia Howell, professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Wealth in these cases largely referred to changes in home values.
For black residents of those same disaster-stricken counties, by contrast, wealth levels have declined after a disaster, research shows.
According to the authors, changes in home values are likely a part of it: As white neighborhoods receive new federal investment, demand for homes in these neighborhoods increases, while black neighborhoods often receive less federal spending and have therefore struggling to recover. And black residents may be more likely to suffer a financial setback, such as the loss of a home or job.
“The more assistance a region receives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the more this inequality increases,” wrote Dr Howell and Elliott. “FEMA aid – as it is currently administered – seems to make the problem worse. “
In interviews, researchers said they had no reason to believe FEMA was intentionally discriminatory. Rather, the differences may arise from the realities of real estate, municipal finances, and the challenges of navigating the federal bureaucracy.
Counties with more non-white residents may have less tax revenue, which means less staff or resources to navigate the complex process of finding FEMA grants, or less money to pay the local share required by FEMA. . And homes in black neighborhoods may have lower land values, making them more attractive for government buyout programs with limited funds.
More money to rebuild communities after a disaster can increase property values, lowering prices for low-income tenants. And individual disaster assistance tends to benefit landlords more than renters, and people of color are more likely to rent.