A Lesson on Race, Income, and Community Resilience Against Disasters

The most urgent task for those of us managing crises like COVID-19 is protecting those most vulnerable to its harmful, and often, fatal outcomes. This requires that we properly identify these groups and the roadblocks they face in being able to easily recover from disasters and public health emergencies. In this spirit, at Healthcare Ready, we have been calling out the disparities communities of color and low-income communities are facing and amplifying how COVID-19 has hit these communities harder. These disparities span many health and safety issues including proximity to healthcare resources, essential worker status and protections, and access to trusted and accurate information. We continue to address the systemic inequalities people of color and low socioeconomic status residents face by leading data-driven conversations about race and income and their role in community resilience. We conduct a yearly poll on the disaster preparedness concerns, behaviors, and perspectives of US adultsto support this ongoing dialogue. 

One major observation I gathered from our most recent poll: a community’s level of preparedness is not necessarily reflective of their level of concern for disasters.

The 2020 poll shows that less than half of Americans have an emergency plan in place (40%). At the same time, 65% of Americans thought it is likely that a major disaster will impact them or their family in the next 5 years. We might infer, then, that the capacity of communities of color and low-income communities to prepare for disaster is influenced by factors besides just their level of concern for a disaster. In fact, our poll shows that Black people are the least likely to have a bag packed with emergency supplies but the most likely to plan to do this soon. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Both Blacks and Hispanics are less likely than Whites to keep cash on hand to prepare for emergencies, but both groups are more likely than Whites to indicate they intend to do this soon. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

If Black people and Hispanic people are the most likely to plan to take these steps, what, then, may be holding us back from following through and preparing for disasters as well as others? My theory is that good intention is not enough, not when these communities are faced with systemic barriers that, among other impacts, reduce their income. These lower income levels for Black people and Hispanic people mean they have fewer resources to allocate to emergency savings and supplies.

Take the result of the 2020 poll that shows most respondents in the highest income bracket ($80k+) keep emergency cash on hand (55%). Those in the lowest income bracket (under $40k) are least likely to keep cash on-hand (42%) (See Figure 3). The more money you have, the more likely you are to have emergency savings. This is easy to understand. What is more curious is that, like we see in the racial breakdown for this preparedness activity, those who are least like to have emergency cash are the most likely to say they will do it soon.

Figure 3

This is another possible indicator that these people would be just as prepared as their higher-income counterparts, were they to have the same level of resources. These people aren’t less prepared for crisis due to a lack of concern, but due to the structural challenges they face. These two disaster preparedness activities, storing emergency supplies and saving cash, require that one has the means to spend time and money on disaster planning, which isn’t a priority for those with strained resources. Research shows that people of low socioeconomic status around the world are less likely to invest in disaster preparedness activities as a limited budget forces one to focus on short term needs over proactive investments. For example, one of the many case studies on Hurricane Katrina shows people in poorer communities in New Orleans were less likely to have flood insurance, which could have helped their households financially recover from the devastation of this storm. 

In this pandemic, Black people have been reported to be dying of COVID-19 at over twice the rate of White people, where racial data is available. We have to acknowledge the connection between Black people’s reduced ability to prepare for disasters and the increased risk we face in crises such as COVID-19. There are numerous factors that increase the COVID-19 risk for Black people including lack of telework ability, reliance on public transportation, and chronic disease burden. Moreover, poorer communities, regardless of race, are much less equipped to survive disasters and disease outbreaks. Our domestic poll data may indicate, alongside a plethora of outside research, that a lack of resources is a likely contributor to this case, and many other cases of marginalized groups affected by disasters.

In our response to natural disasters and disease outbreaks, we must work to reduce the challenges communities of color and low-income communities face in obtaining the resources they need to prepare and protect themselves. The call to action for public health officials and emergency managers is to openly acknowledge the systemic issues working against marginalized groups and, in turn, adjust policies and plans to strategically reduce the barriers to their improved health and safety. Our goal should always be to ensure everyone has equitable and sufficient access to the resources made to protect us from crisis, so we can leverage these systems for our resilience.