June 11, 2019

GAO Agrees to Investigate Federal Disaster Aid Programs' Impact on Inequality

Lawmakers requested watchdog’s review amid evidence suggesting that the way natural disaster aid is distributed worsens inequalities in affected communities

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, applauded the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for agreeing to their April 2019 request to conduct a review of federal disaster relief programs to determine the extent to which the structure and administration of those programs exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequities in the United States and the extent to which they have a disparate impact on tribal nations.

President Donald Trump recently signed a major bipartisan disaster relief package that will help people across the country recover from natural disasters, including hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires. The GAO investigation will be helpful in understanding whether aid reaches the communities that need it most after a disaster.

“This investigation will help policymakers learn more about the racial and socioeconomic impact of federal disaster aid programs, so we can ensure that federal efforts to rebuild after disasters benefit everyone who needs help,” said Senator Warren and Representative Thompson.

As climate change intensifies, scientists predict that the number of extreme weather events taking place each year will increase. When natural disasters strike, affected communities rely on the federal government for emergency resources and disaster relief. However, 573 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States are largely shut out of federal funding intended to help communities meet minimum standards of emergency preparedness developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Fire Administration, and other authorities. According to a 2018 University of Pittsburgh-Rice University study, natural disasters were associated with increased "wealth inequality, especially along the lines of race, education, and homeownership," and a National Public Radio analysis found that the federal aid that follows disasters disproportionately benefits wealthier and whiter communities.

In their letter requesting the investigation, Senator Warren and Chairman Thompson asked the GAO to address several questions, including:

  1. What key federal funding streams and programs are available to help individuals recover from natural disasters?
  2. What type of data these agencies and programs collect on the impact of these programs on various racial and socioeconomic groups, and their impacts on tribal nations?
  3. What research is available on the long-term recovery impact of those programs for different racial and socioeconomic groups, and on tribal and non-tribal communities?
  4. What legislative, regulatory, and other policy changes the federal government should consider to ensure that all communities benefit equally from federal disaster relief programs?
The GAO has estimated staff will be available to initiate the investigation later this year.