Minorities Likely to Receive Less Disaster Aid Than White Americans: NPR

A new NPR survey finds that white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal aid after a disaster than minorities and those with less wealth.


This morning we hear the latest news from Alabama, where a deadly tornado struck Sunday, the deadliest in the United States since 2013. People there are hoping for federal disaster relief. And this morning, we bring you an exclusive survey from NPR. It is found that across the United States, white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal aid after a disaster than minorities and those with less wealth. Federal aid is allocated on the basis of cost-benefit calculations intended to minimize the risks for taxpayers and not on the basis of need.

NPR’s Robert Benincasa and Rebecca Hersher conducted this investigation, and Rebecca is with us in the studio this morning.

Hi, Becky.


GREENE: So why is that? Why does federal aid not always go to those who need it most?

HERSHER: The federal government spends a lot of money to rebuild and prevent future damage after disasters. So they do things like give money for a down payment on a new apartment, say, after a house has been flooded. Or a new car, if your car is destroyed. Or even buy properties that have been flooded multiple times so that no one else lives there. And you might assume that this money is going to the people who need it most. But in fact, often it goes to Americans with other safety nets.

GREENE: So give me an example to help us out, if you can.

HERSHER: So let’s take the low interest loans first. So the federal government gives loans at low interest rates to help families who, say, have lost all of their possessions in a flood. But you have to have a certain credit rating to qualify, and that’s to protect the taxpayer because if you don’t pay the money back, we all do. Often times, people who have more money have been able to maintain higher credit scores.

Here’s another example – property buyouts. For example, the federal government will sometimes buy properties with federal and local money after a disaster, such as flooding. And the land is transformed into a permanent green space. And in the future, no other home, business, or potential life will be wasted there. This is the purpose of the redemption.

GREENE: So if they buy a property, you have to own it to benefit from it. And the wealthiest people tend to own property more often. This is how it works ?

HERSHER: Mm-hmm. And there have been homeownership barriers in the United States for various people, various racial groups as well.

GREENE: Of course.

HERSHER: So even among homeowners, we’ve found that white people are more likely to get a buyout. So Robert Benincasa of NPR – he’s my reporting partner on this project – he got a list of properties that the federal government bought. There are about 40,000 of them. Robert filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The federal government denied. NPR continued. In the end, we won.

So when we got it, Robert took all the zip codes associated with the addresses of the properties and linked them to the US Census demographics data. And we found that nationally, sales of flood damaged homes most often occurred in places where the population was over 85% white. Now, for context, the entire country is about 62 percent white.

GREENE: So it’s dramatic. Is the federal government responding to this now that you’ve seen these numbers and conducted this investigation?

HERSHER: They are. So we interviewed David Maurstad, who oversees the FEMA buyout program. And he said the program works if it makes the community less risky, if it saves property and if it potentially saves lives. It is not designed to take into account demographics. And he rightly points out that they don’t actually choose which properties are offered for buybacks. This is what local governments do.

GREENE: So he’s not denying that demographics are involved here. I mean, whichever way you look at it, it’s a system that picks winners and losers.

HERSHER: Exactly – and often on racial grounds. So I spoke to two researchers for this project who looked across the country at the county level to see how net worth changes after a disaster. And they found that, on average, blacks lose wealth and whites get richer after a disaster. And this effect is even more intense for tenants than for owners. And there is another kicker. If the federal government is spending more and more money on climate change, then you are going to see all of these effects exacerbate in the years to come because the precipitation becomes more intense.

GREENE: Becky, thank you very much.

HERHER: Thank you very much.

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NPR transcripts are created within an emergency time frame by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR entrepreneur, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.

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