As extreme weather batters communities across the country, a new report from the Center for American Progress details how these events disproportionately harm middle and lower-income Americans because they simply have fewer resources to prepare for and recover from such disasters. While many describe storms and other extreme weather as “social equalizers” that do not differentiate based on ethnicity, race, or class, the truth is that these events exacerbate our underlying economic inequities.
With extreme weather on the rise, and so-called “storms of the century” becoming part of the new normal, vulnerable populations will be at much greater risk from climate change. While it is impossible to predict all the ways an extreme weather event can disrupt a community, the report explains that many of our disaster-resilience and recovery policies do not even account for the ongoing vulnerabilities that low-income households experience.
By 2011, 46.2 million Americans — nearly one in six people — were living in poverty. Today, millions of households are affected as people cycle in and out of poverty. Data shows that over a four-year period, one in three Americans will experience a spell of poverty. When families lack economic security, an unforeseen crisis that causes financial hardship can jeopardize the ability of parents to pay the bills, put food on the table, and afford necessities such as child care or medical expenses. When that crisis is a natural disaster, families on the brink can be driven deeper into poverty. With extreme weather events on the rise, low-income families are at a greater risk than ever before due to their poor housing quality, environmental conditions, and economic instability. 1. Poor Quality Housing
Shoddy construction and the age of affordable housing — generally in less-than-desirable neighborhoods that lack quality services and are supported by suboptimal infrastructure — puts low-income people at greater risk from the effects of extreme weather.
Despite this reality, we cannot simply move millions of people to new and better buildings and neighborhoods. There is currently a shortage of more than 5 million affordable-housing units for low-income families across the country. As a result, many low-income families rely on substandard housing, including approximately 7 million low- and moderate-income families who live in manufactured homes or mobile homes. This is of particular concern as people living in mobile homes account for half of all tornado deaths.
Housing continues to be a significant issue for people of color and low-income disaster victims in the recovery period. Analyses show that housing assistance after extreme weather events often favors middle-class victims, particularly homeowners. Keeping housing affordable presents further challenges. After Katrina, more than 40,000 affordable rental units, out of a total of 86,000 such units, experienced severe or major damage. This created a situation where costs soared for those units that were available. The fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose 45 percent in two years.
2. Environmental Factors
Extreme heat is one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities every year. The intense heat waves in 2011 and 2012 took more than 181 lives and set temperature records across the nation. These temperature increases can exacerbate what is known as the “heat-island” effect, where densely built-up areas tend to be hotter than nearby rural areas. African Americans are 52 percent more likely than whites to live in such densely packed neighborhoods. At night, the temperature difference between a dense city and a nearby rural area can be as high as 22 degrees. Extreme weather events such as tornadoes and hurricanes require a rapid and large-scale clean up. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, 22 million tons of debris was removed and disposed of in Louisiana alone. Because of the urgency and the large undertaking, many unlined landfills that were originally closed because contaminants were leaking into groundwater were reopened and put into service. One study estimated that 1,740 metric tons of arsenic was contained in the 12 million cubic meters of demolition wood debris that was dumped in such landfills in the wake of Katrina in Louisiana alone, posing risks of contamination to groundwater.
3. Economic Instability
Following a disaster, one of the immediate concerns of families is food security. While many charities work to help in the immediate aftermath of disaster, food assistance programs work to help stabilize households. In the wake of federally declared disasters, states can apply for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), which provides replacement benefits for regular food stamp recipients who lose food in a disaster and extends benefits to low-income households that would not ordinarily be eligible for food assistance. Unfortunately, a large threat looms to the program as D-SNAP is funded through the traditional SNAP program: House Republicans have been targeting the program for billions of dollars in cuts.
Another critical concern for families living in poverty or on the brink of poverty is potential job loss. Overall, federal labor laws include more protections for salaried workers than for hourly workers when a disaster hits. “Non-salaried workers are really at the mercy of their employers,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. “If the business closes because of the storm, employers don’t have to pay non-salaried workers for lost wages. And if the business is open, but the worker can’t make it into work, employers are also not required to pay for lost wages. And in most cases, they won’t.”
So what can be done? In order to address these vulnerabilities, the report states that investments must be made in resiliency to extreme weather. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar invested in building resilience and reducing exposure to disaster risks saves $4 in disaster response and recovery. And yet, taxpayers spent nearly $6 for disaster recovery for every $1 spent to increase general community resilience over the past three years.
The report recommends a number of steps that can be taken to increase the resiliency of low-income communities and better respond to extreme weather events, including bolstering the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and Low Income Energy Assistance Program. Additionally, the report says the president and Congress should oppose proposed cuts to SNAP and D-SNAP and Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, should advise state and local governments in disaster-prone areas to develop plans for how emergency cleanups will be conducted.
By addressing the availability and quality of affordable housing, protecting communities against environment factors, and ensuring greater economic security, low-income communities will be better equipped to cope with an unforeseen crisis.