Federal disaster relief programs don’t help those in greatest need, FEMA report says

January 3, 2022

A national advisory panel concluded that programs designed to help people suffering disaster impacts “often fail to deliver assistance to those with the greatest need,” contributing to a wealth gap in the U.S.

A report by the Equity Subcommittee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Advisory Council determined that people who started with fewer resources before a disaster received disproportionately less aid than people with greater resources, even if they were more directly impacted by a disaster.

“Inequities that exist prior to a disaster cannot be expected to be fixed by the programs that FEMA administers, but individuals who start with less personal property, disposable income, and other resources pre-disaster are affected disproportionately and actually lose a higher percentage of their total resources post-disaster than those who have more resources,” the report states. “As an outcome, when awards are determined, those that started with less receive disproportionally less. This contributes to the continued ‘wealth gap’ in the United States. This is just one of the ways that inequity continues to be propagated within the FEMA programs.”

The report found that FEMA administrative requirements for aid, like documented proof of ownership or rental occupancy, have disproportionately affected rural and low-income areas where homes are often passed to heirs without formal documentation.

Those requirements have led to a high number of FEMA denials for applications from low-income disaster survivors, even in major disasters. According to the report, issues involving home titles impacted 90% of low-income applications for assistance in Houston following Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

The report makes several suggestions on how to fix FEMA’s equity problems, including reducing the public assistance bureaucracy, allowing alternative proof of ownership, expanding declaration criteria and allowing states to manage federal disaster assistance.

In September, FEMA made several of the changes recommended in the report, including expanding the types of documentation accepted for proof of ownership and expanding other forms of disaster assistance.

Between 2000 and 2019, 23 federal disasters have been declared in Indiana, mainly due to severe storms. The federal government also made an ongoing federal disaster declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Federal disaster relief programs don’t help those in greatest need, FEMA report says