Low-Income Households Should Be Prioritized After Disaster Strikes

September 15, 2020

Carolyn Kousky and Carlos Martin

This blog post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Hill on August 31, 2020.

Hurricane Laura made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in western Louisiana and eastern Texas Thursday morning, leaving yet-to-be counted damage and despair in its wake.

As preliminary inspections continue in the disaster-declared places, one group is almost certain to be disproportionately harmed by the storm’s physical effects: low-income households, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Study after study, and lived story after lived story, foretell the potential fate of cities like Cameron, La. (which had a 29.6 percent poverty rate before the pandemic and the hurricane) and Lake Charles City, La., (23 percent poverty rate), which were among the first places hit. As the winds die down and conditions are assessed, these cities will also likely be among the last to recover and receive public relief assistance.

Low-income households too often slip through the cracks of relief and recovery assistance. In many cases, this is by design. Our disaster policies do not provide equitable help, leaving those most in need with insufficient resources to respond and rebuild. We surveyed experts in disaster response last year who unanimously agreed that current federal disaster policies are failing our neediest households.

That’s why we need to improve our federal disaster relief and recovery policies to ensure resources are getting to the people who need them most.

Even before disaster strikes, lower-income households are often at greater risk from disaster impacts, living in more vulnerable areas and in less safe housing. They have less access to emergency preparedness, evacuation assistance, transportation, safe shelter, medical attention and child care during response efforts. These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a disaster. Most U.S. households don’t have enough liquid savings to fund their own recovery, and lower-income households are often locked out of access to credit.

Federal disaster relief funds are difficult to access, insufficient and delayed along the recovery path. The logistics of signing up for assistance can be a challenge for people with physical disabilities, with transportation or bandwidth limitations, or with limited language ability. Even for those who can apply, the paperwork, documentation and appeals are onerous, adding more stress to families who are already suffering. And low-income households with lower valued possessions or undervalued homes often don’t meet the federal criteria for severe needs, even when their losses may mean much more proportionally to their livelihoods than larger absolute losses for wealthier households.

So how can we improve our federal disaster relief and recovery programs? First, we need one consistent application for federal disaster assistance, with transparent eligibility requirements and easy-to-follow procedures and better data sharing among federal agencies. Streamlining programs and consolidating applications could also ensure households know all their options at the point of application.

An increase in overall federal resources can also ensure sufficient recovery funds are available for families without savings, without access to credit and who can’t afford insurance. Reconstruction dollars must be prioritized for frontline communities and must arrive quickly. Permanent authorization of the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery is a start to achieving this goal.

Looking ahead, while sufficient and timely recovery aid is essential, there is no substitute for preparation for future disasters. Increasing annual funding for programs that build climate resilience beyond the modest sums that have been recently appropriated is critical to effective preparation efforts. A comprehensive disaster policy reform plan would devote funds to communities most at risk of climate impacts and to communities most in need of reparations for historical gaps in services and opportunity.

Public officials can also work with communities to develop community initiated solutions to disaster preparation, being more receptive to nature based approaches and incentivizing improved land use, building codes, risk disclosures and other awareness building strategies. These reforms could include Congress establishing an assistance program for lower-income households to afford disaster insurance and support for innovative insurance solutions by the private sector.

To ensure no one slips through the cracks, federal disaster programs must prioritize the communities most at risk not just environmentally, but also socially and economically. Disasters will increase in size, frequency, and devastation. Improving federal disaster relief and recovery is critical to respond to the scale of the need and to address inequities that policies and practices have created.

Learn more about this topic in “Improving the Disaster Recovery of Low Income Households” an ideation with experts co-led by the Urban Institute and Wharton Risk Center through the Digital Dialogues and Policy Debates.