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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Geoffrey West
September 15, 2015
In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma directly hit Florida, causing numerous deaths and over $16.8 billion in damages. Many Floridians were under-prepared and heavily relied on government emergency assistance, much to the dismay of former governor Jeb Bush. He stated, “People had ample time to prepare,” and, “It isn’t that hard to get 72 hours’ worth of food and water.”
Bush’s comments reflect a prevalent notion among Americans, especially Republicans that the individual is primarily responsible for one’s circumstances. For instance, to the question which is to blame if a person is poor, 51 percent of Republicans said “lack of effort,” and 32 percent said “circumstances outside one’s control.” In contrast, Democrats answered 29 percent and 63 percent respectively. This view holds that the individual, not circumstance, is the primary factor that influences one’s socioeconomic status. This belief can be seen to extend to a person’s preparedness for disasters, as exampled by Jeb Bush’s comments.
While personal responsibility is an important part of disaster preparedness, public administrators cannot ignore institutional and socioeconomic barriers people face. Many hindrances limit peoples’ ability to help themselves, especially among the poor. Poverty and other economic restraints create an environment where sudden monetary and time expenditures are near impossible. Policy makers may overlook some of these socioeconomic barriers.
Limitations of Personal Responsibility
Those in poverty are likely to work low paying jobs with limited scheduling flexibility. These jobs are likely paid hourly, with little to no paid time off to prepare for an eminent disaster or emergency. This situation forces the individual to weigh the costs of preparing for a disaster versus keeping one’s job and wages. Moreover, one must evaluate the cost of quitting their job in order to prepare for oncoming disaster.
People in poverty are likely unable to acquire funds to sufficiently purchase emergency supplies. One study shows that a quarter of the U.S. population has no emergency savings, a fact made more troubling by a second study which showed that the median household savings account has zero dollars.
Implications for Government
These issues bring to light an important question: if government officials want their constituents to be more self-reliant, what then is the role of government? Ireni-Saban in “Challenging Disaster Administration: Toward Community-Based Disaster Resilience” discusses how government ought to shift from a provider of direct service to a provider of empowerment. In her view, governments and communities play a role in reaching self-sufficiency through inclusion, advocacy and competency.
Government must first encourage community inclusion into the mitigation, planning, response and recovery planning stages of emergency management. Certain policies will have adverse and regressive effects upon the poor. Government must create channels for all communities to be included in government decisions, especially ones that may adversely affect their community. The government should also identify leaders within the community and involve them in the policymaking process.
Once communities are included more effectively in government, communities can advocate for themselves. The idea is that the community may better understand their needs and then use channels of inclusion to lobby the government for needed resources. Once government knows what the community wants and needs, the government can then advocate on behalf of the citizens. Government does not need to impose what it thinks is most important on a community; rather, government should listen to the community’s wants and needs, and then help with the provision of these goods.
Government can better encourage competency by investing in the individuals of the community. This can be done by educating the community planning for disasters, increasing community activities to support self-confidence, and incorporating community leaders in preparedness and recovery plans. This investment into the community focuses on making the citizens better able to take care of themselves by increasing knowledge of disaster planning. In regards to disaster management, a poor family may not be able to afford the related disaster preparedness costs all at once. Government may fund financial planning classes to teach citizens about proper financial planning for disasters. Government could encourage these types of activities and education for communities well before disaster strikes.
In summary, inclusion, advocacy, and competency are necessary action steps for building a resilient community. A community’s recovery back to normalcy after a disaster is quicker if the population can adequately rely on itself. Since this is not possible in every community, it is the role of government to bring their community to this point of being self-sustaining.
Jeb Bush is certainly correct that people should prepare for disaster and that personal responsibility is important. However, we cannot neglect the fact that people often face difficult situations. Thus, the government must help empower people to be able to better take care of themselves and their families.
Author: Geoffrey West is a second year MPA student at the University of South Florida. His areas of interest include emergency management, poverty, political economy and nonprofit management. He can be reached at [email protected]