FEMA Disaster Aid Often Widens Racial Disparities

Research published in 2018 found that, for white Americans, living in a county hit by a large disaster was a financial boon. Those white residents didn’t just see their wealth grow — it grew five times as much, on average, as the wealth of white residents in counties without major disasters, according to the research by Dr. Elliott and Junia Howell, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Wealth in these cases largely referred to changes in home values.

For Black residents of those same disaster-struck counties, by contrast, wealth levels shrank after a disaster, according to the research.

Changes in home values are probably part of the reason, according to the authors: As white neighborhoods receive new federal investment, demand for houses in those neighborhoods goes up, while Black neighborhoods often get less federal spending and so struggle to recover. And Black residents may be more likely to suffer a financial setback, such as losing a home or a job.

“The more aid an area receives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the more this inequality grows,” Dr. Howell and Dr. Elliott wrote. “FEMA aid — as currently administered — appears to exacerbate the problem.”

In interviews, researchers said they had no reason to believe FEMA was intentionally discriminating. Rather, the differences may flow from the realities of real estate, municipal finance and the challenges of navigating the federal bureaucracy.

Counties with more nonwhite residents may have less tax revenue, which means fewer staff or resources to navigate the complex process of seeking FEMA grants, or less money to pay the local share that FEMA requires. And houses in Black neighborhoods may have lower property values, which makes them more attractive for government buyout programs with limited funds.

More money to rebuild communities after a disaster may increase property values, pricing out lower-income renters. And individual disaster assistance tends to benefit homeowners more than renters, and people of color are more likely to rent.

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