STUDY: After Natural Disasters, Whites Accumulate Wealth While People of Color Lose It

By Ayana Byrd Aug 22, 2018

Black and Latinx people in the United States disproportionately live in areas that tend to be hit by natural disasters such as floods. A new study shows that they are not just geographically disadvantaged in the face of climate disasters, but also economically disadvantaged.

The journal Social Problems released "Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States" last week (August 14). The study sought to investigate how families’ personal wealth was affected by natural disasters and related recovery efforts. It examined age, education and home ownership data for approximately 3,500 families from 1999 to 2013. Per ThinkProgress:


According to the study by Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh, in counties badly hit by natural disasters—areas with at least $10 billion in damages—White communities gained an average $126,000 in wealth following the damage and recovery efforts.


Yet, for Blacks, Latinx and Asians living in counties hit hard by natural disasters, these communities saw their wealth decrease by an amount between $10,000 and $29,000.

The study pinpointed several reasons behind this wealth inequality. One is that Whites tend to live in areas that have higher levels of reinvestment via infrastructure projects after natural disasters.  

Second, areas that receive more financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have a greater increase in wealth inequality. As ThinkProgress reports:


The researchers, however, aren’t sure why FEMA aid is further exacerbating inequality and say more work is needed to understand the connection. But, as [lead study author Junia] Howell noted, “based on previous work on disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, we know FEMA aid is not equitably distributed across communities.”

In 2017, the United States suffered more than $260 billion in direct damages from natural disasters, mainly hurricanes, but also floods and wildfires. The quantity—as well as the severity—of these types of disasters are expected to increase as a result of climate change.