Why tackling income inequality is our best climate change resilience strategy
Updated: Feb 17
By Eloise Bristow
Climate change impacts, like flooding, will exacerbate the economic disparities already endemic to the US. How can we mitigate this?
Climate change in America presents a Catch 22 situation: those who are most impacted are by definition the people who are least equipped to deal with the consequences. With more climate impacts just around the corner, how will social inequality in the US be affected?
It is not that lower income people on the whole are more likely to be affected by climate change. Not yet, anyway. If anything, the fires of the summer have shown that no income group is immune to climate change. However, as climate impacts become repeat impacts, lower-income people are unable to spend the money needed to recover, or leave areas with repeated impacts.
In short, climate change will exacerbate systemic economic disparities, widening an already immense gap; despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, 43% of the US population, or 140 million people, are classified at poverty level. This leaves much of the country unable to make the financial provisions necessary to bounce back in the event of a natural disaster.
Flooding and income inequality
Our Climate Impact Census shows that the current flood recovery infrastructure, including health insurance, flood insurance, and FEMA disaster assistance, offer inadequate protection for significant financial exposures. We see many households that have to put off retirement or children’s education due to having their savings destroyed, who have taken on debt in order to manage their disaster bills, who live in ruined houses they cannot afford to fix, or who are forced to stay in areas where they are no longer safe because they cannot afford to move. We see significant financial exposure even for households well above the poverty level. And lower income households simply cannot recover.
When it comes to flooding, there are a specific reasons lower income citizens suffer most from a flooding event in the United States. First, they are more likely to live in a flood risk area in the first place, as areas prone to flooding tend to be more affordable. Second, low-cost homes tend to be worse in terms of material and design quality, so are more susceptible to damage following a flooding event. And third, low income citizens are more likely to be single parents or have health complications, making it all the more challenging to recover from a flooding crisis.
Disparities in relief and funding
Given that lower income people are most at risk, logically they should be in a position to be granted aid. However, often this isn’t the case. A recurring issue is that lower income communities are at a disadvantage when it comes to funding relief. Following the damage of Hurricane Harvey, the Times reported that “50 percent of lower-income respondents said they weren’t getting the help they needed, compared to 32 percent of those with higher incomes”. And recent research found that low income or a low credit score could lead to significant difficulties in recovery funding or receiving loans.
David Abramson, founding director of NYU’s program on disaster recovery and resilience, states the resounding factor for effective recovery is speed of action “The faster you move somebody into stable housing, the faster, more accelerated, and more durable their recovery will be”. Meaning that an uneven relief distribution from the get-go will hinder communities not only in the short-term, but will have long-standing impacts.
Building resilience against climate change in the United States
Tragically, as climate change hastens, extreme flooding events are growing increasingly common. A UCLA report estimates that by 2050, up to 24,500 units of affordable housing could be at risk of flooding in the US, and 10,000 of these homes could see four or more flood events per annum. That’s triple the number of affordable units at risk just 20 years ago. And yet this number is misleadingly low because affordable housing represents a small percentage of housing actually available to low income individuals. A recent report by the First Street Foundation has found that, by 2050, 16.2 million people in the US will be at substantial risk of flooding in a given year. Many of these people will be from low income households living in unaffordable housing, due to its severe under provision.
The answer? Closing the wealth gap. Due to polarization of capital in the US, the effects of flood events are not evenly felt across the country. With much of the American population unable to make provisions prior to the event of a natural disaster, they are left exposed to severe and long lasting damage. Accordingly, policies which counteract the economic fragility felt by lower income citizens, such as health insurance and livable wages, will allow the vulnerable to accumulate savings, giving them their best chance at recovery. For this reason, our best strategy for climate resiliency starts with tackling the fundamental income inequalities which are endemic to the US.