FEMA Catastrophe Support Typically Widens Racial Disparities

A study published in 2018 found that living in a major disaster-stricken county was a financial blessing for white Americans. These white residents not only grew their wealth – it grew, on average, five times the wealth of white residents in counties without major disasters, according to research by Dr. Elliott and Junia Howell, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Wealth in these cases largely related to changes in home values.

In contrast, the wealth of black residents of those same disaster-stricken counties declined after a disaster, the research found.

According to the authors, changes in home values ​​are likely a reason for this: As white neighborhoods receive new federal investment, demand for homes in those neighborhoods increases, while black neighborhoods often receive less federal spending and are therefore difficult to recover. And black residents are more likely to experience financial setbacks, such as losing a home or job.

“The more aid an area receives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the greater this inequality becomes,” write Dr. Howell and Dr. Elliott. “FEMA aid – as it is currently being granted – appears to be exacerbating the problem.”

In interviews, the researchers said they had no reason to believe that FEMA was deliberately discriminating against. Rather, the differences can result from the realities of real estate, local finances and the challenges of navigating through the federal bureaucracy.

Counties with more non-Whites may have less tax revenue, which means fewer staff or resources are required to go through the complex process of applying for FEMA grants, or less money to pay the local share required by FEMA. And homes in black neighborhoods can have lower property values, making them more attractive to government buyout programs with limited funds.

Spending more on rebuilding communities after a disaster can increase property value and put lower-income tenants at a disadvantage. And individual disaster relief is more likely to benefit homeowners than tenants, and colored people are more likely to rent.

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