Skip to content
April 18, 2019

Thompson, Warren Seek GAO Review of Federal Disaster Aid Programs' Impact on Inequality

Evidence Suggests Natural Disasters Worsen Racial, Socioeconomic Inequalities in Affected Communities

(WASHINGTON) Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, (D-MS), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting that the GAO 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 Native tribal nations.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States experienced an unusually large number of high-cost natural disasters in recent years. As climate change worsens, scientists predict that the number of extreme weather events taking place each year will increase. When natural disasters strike, U.S. citizens in affected communities rely on the federal government for emergency resources and disaster relief. 

In their letter, Senator Warren and Chairman Thompson cited a growing body of evidence suggesting that natural disasters exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequities in affected communities-and that the aid administered in the wake of those disasters amplifies these impacts. Among the research cited was a 2018 University of Pittsburgh-Rice University study, which revealed that natural disasters were associated with increased "wealth inequality, especially along the lines of race, education, and homeownership." The lawmakers also noted a National Public Radio analysis which found that disasters, and the federal aid that follows, disproportionately benefit wealthier and whiter communities.

"U.S. citizens in need deserve equal access to and fair treatment from federal disaster resources," the lawmakers wrote."As the federal government continues to grapple with the rising incidence and cost of extreme weather events and natural disasters, it is critical that lawmakers understand the socioeconomic impacts of current federal disaster policy."

In addition, Senator Warren and Chairman Thompson noted that the 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 FEMA, the National Fire Administration, and other authorities.

The lawmakers requested that the GAO examine the following issues:

  • What key federal funding streams and programs are available to help individuals recover from natural disasters;
  • 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;
  • 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; and
  • What legislative, regulatory, and other policy changes the federal government should consider to ensure that all communities benefit equally from federal disaster relief programs.

Full Letter Text


Media Contact:

Adam Comis (Thompson): 202-225-9978

Ashley Woolheater (Warren): 202-224-2292