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How the racial wealth gap in American worsens with each natural disaster

With wildfires still unconfined in California and the Midwest, Hawaii experiencing one of the worst hurricanes to hit the islands in decades, and Puerto Rico just now getting back on the grid more than a year after Hurriance Maria devastated the island— natural disasters are certainly taking their tolls on America.


In the U.S., these and other natural disasters caused more than $300 billion in damages since 2017. An estimated 1,400 people lost their lives in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. Wildfires throughout the midwest have burned more than 450,000 acres in California alone this summer.


These are staggering numbers. Also staggering is the racial wealth gap in America that’s only being strengthened by these natural disasters. Americans of color have faired the worse, with an average wealth declination of approximately $20,000 as a result of these natural disasters.


A study from the University of Pittsburg and Rice University found that people living in the worst-hit counties had different financial outcomes depending on their race.

In comparison, in counties that experienced more than $10 billion in post-disaster damages, white citizens saw an increase of wealth of more than $126,000. That’s a pretty stark contrast.


“Put another way, whites accumulate more wealth after natural disasters while residents of color accumulate less,” Jim Elliott, one of the study’s authors and a professor of sociology at Rice University, said in a press release. “What this means is wealth inequality is increasing in counties that are hit by more disasters.”


While this statistic is certainly eye-opening, the cause may be even more intriguing.

Black communities living in counties that received the most FEMA aid accumulated less wealth than their counterparts who received the least amount of federal aid. The findings are roughly the same for other minority communities including Latinx and Asian demographics.


Junia Howell, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburg gave some information that may tell us why this happens. “Based on previous work on disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, we know FEMA aid is not equitably distributed across communities.”


“When certain areas receive more redevelopment aid and those neighborhoods also are primarily white, racial inequality is going to be amplified,” says Howell.


While the exact cause is unknown, the conclusion remains clear: Natural disasters create greater wealth gaps in America amongst minorities. Thankfully, understanding these findings allows us to create solutions and find solid answers to help reduce the wealth gaps created.


“The good news is that if we develop more equitable approaches to disaster recovery, we can not only better tackle that problem but also help build a more just and resilient society,” Howell and Elliott said.

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