As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of weather disasters, new research shows that the resulting local disasters could accelerate the inequality that is already a regular fact of life in the United States.
“Our work shows that people move away from areas hit by the largest natural disasters, but smaller disasters have little effect on migration,” a research team led by Princeton University’s Leah Platt Boustan writes in Grist. “The data also showed that these trends may worsen inequality in the U.S., as the rich move away from disaster-prone areas, while the poor are left behind.”
The research team produced a county-by-county database of natural disasters in the United States between 1920 and 2010, then compared differences in migration rates between areas prone to natural disasters and those that were relatively calm.
“If a county experienced two natural disasters, migration out of that county increased by one percentage point, with the strongest reactions happening in response to hurricanes. This translates into a loss of around 600 residents from a typical county,” the team notes. After a single large disaster responsible for 100 or more deaths, the population impact doubles.
The research also pointed to an increase in poverty rates in the hardest-hit regions. “That suggests that people who aren’t poor are migrating out or that people who are poor are migrating in,” the authors explain. “It might also mean that the existing population transitioned into poverty.”
Overall, they conclude, the county-by-county data “suggests the poor will face growing exposure to natural disaster activity,” and that “the rich may have the resources to move away from areas facing natural disasters, leaving behind a population that is disproportionately poor.”