Hurricanes can increase inequality in the US – but not in the way you think

Hurricane Irma hits Florida, 2017. Image: Getty.

Hurricane Lane, which last year drenched Hawaii with four feet of rain, is a reminder of the devastation hurricane season can bring.

Only one year earlier Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, followed closely by Irma and Maria, which left a trail of destruction across Florida and Puerto Rico. Despite the private and government aid provided after these disasters, thousands continue to struggle even today.

However, not everyone is struggling. In fact, some actually benefit economically from these extreme weather events.

In a new study that I co-authored with James Elliott, a fellow sociologist at Rice University, we found that populations that are privileged in terms of education, race or homeownership gain wealth in the aftermath of natural disasters, exacerbating already wide economic inequities.

Not only that, how the government delivers aid is partly to blame.

Disasters on the rise

Natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires are on the rise, both in terms of frequency and severity.

And they take a heavy toll. In 2017 alone, the United States suffered $260bn in direct damages from natural disasters. While that’s a devastating figure, it fails to encompass the full extent of the impact – such as a loss in income or uncovered expenses such as medical bills – that can last for months and even years after cleanup begins.

Previous research has shown the aftermath of disasters is more devastating for less privileged residents as they are more likely to lose their job, have to relocate and pay higher rents due to reduced housing availability.

In our recent paper in the journal Social Problems, we found that the effects are even more profound: white people, the highly educated and homeowners actually improve their relative financial situation after a disaster, while African-Americans, those with less education and renters are worse off compared with their peers.

Whites make gains while others lose

We combined nationally representative data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics on nearly 3,500 families with government figures on natural hazard damages, Federal Emergency Management Aid and local population demographics in every U.S. county.

We then explored how extreme natural disasters influenced changes in family wealth from 1999 to 2013. Throughout our analysis, we controlled for race, education, age, homeownership, family status, residential mobility as well as neighborhood and county demographics with the aim of comparing households that were similar. We also only compared families who started out with similar wealth in 1999.

Overall, we found a surprisingly strong correlation between the scale of damage a county experienced and an increase in average wealth. That is, people who lived in counties that suffered extreme disasters tended to accumulate more wealth over the period than those who lived in mostly unaffected parts of the country. And the more damage a county experienced, the more pronounced the relative gains in wealth.

Greater wealth, however, was not experienced by everyone. Using a statistical technique called interactions, we were able to see how these changes affected different segments of the population depending on race, education and homeownership.

First, we considered the effects of race and found that whites who lived in counties that experienced extreme natural disasters accumulated $100,000 more wealth than their peers with similar characteristics who did not.

For people of color, on the other hand, this effect was reversed. Specifically, black residents living in disaster-prone counties lost $46,000 in wealth compared with their counterparts elsewhere. And Latino residents in affected counties lost $101,000 relative to similar peers.

In other words, while whites benefited financially by living in areas hit by hurricanes and other disasters, people of color were clobbered.

We then examined the impact of education, holding other factors constant. We found that higher levels of education were also associated with a tendency to benefit from natural disasters, while those with less experienced devastating losses.

Finally we focused on homeownership. Similarly, our results showed that those who owned emerged a lot better off than those who rented.

Our findings suggest that natural disasters are worsening wealth inequality, especially along racial lines. For example, in Monmouth, New Jersey – a New York City suburb that experienced the most natural disaster damage in the U.S. from 1999 to 2013 – $111,000 of the increase in the white-black wealth gap during the period can be attributed to the impact of the disasters.

This map visualises these rising inequalities across the largest metropolitan areas.


FEMA aid plays a role

This evidence is depressing in its own right. Yet, what is arguably even more disturbing is Federal Emergency Management Aid is further exacerbating these inequalities.

FEMA aid is distributed to mitigate the negative repercussions of hazards. In the best of worlds this federal assistance would reduce inequality – or at least curtail its expansion. What we found is quite the opposite.

Unlike what you might think, FEMA aid is not distributed solely based on damage or need. In fact, when we compared the amount of natural disaster damage in counties across the U.S. from 1999 to 2013 with how much aid FEMA allocated to them, the correlation is weak. This suggests factors other than need, such as politics, are primarily driving FEMA aid decisions.

However, statistically, this means we can isolate the effect of FEMA aid from natural hazards. When we did this, we found that FEMA aid also exacerbated inequalities. In New York County, for example, which received nearly $8bn in FEMA aid from 1999 to 2013, we found that $105,000 of the increase in the white-black wealth gap is attributable to FEMA aid.

In short, much like natural disasters themselves, FEMA aid is exasperating wealth inequality.

Lingering questions

The obvious question after all this of course is why?

In this particular study, our aim was to identify the patterns of inequality and thus we are unable to specify the reasons why natural disasters and FEMA aid are exacerbating inequality.

That said, we do know from previous research that privatised aid as well as community reinvestment efforts are disproportionately concentrated in privileged communities, especially those that are white and middle-class.

Given the increasing frequency of natural disasters and their role in exacerbating wealth inequality, it is imperative that the U.S. reconsiders its responses to them. Immediate recovery aid is essential but equally important is ensuring this aid does not worsen entrenched inequities.

The Conversation

Junia Howell, Professor of Sociology; Rice University Kinder Institute Scholar, University of Pittsburgh.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.