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Federalism after Hurricane Katrina

How Can Social Programs Respond to a Major Disaster?

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Document date: June 27, 2006
Released online: June 27, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


Programs that provide housing assistance, unemployment benefits, health care, and welfare to low-income people and others in the United States have a complex structure. Each program has a different mix of federal, state, and local roles in financing, in determining who is eligible for benefits, and in deciding what those benefits will be. Even if this complexity can be juggled reasonably well for families, individuals, local governments, and states during normal times, however, Hurricane Katrina posed a severe test. This paper explores how these programs fared under the extreme conditions of the storm and its aftermath.

Hurricane Katrina dealt a severe blow to over a million people in Louisiana and the coastal regions of Mississippi and had repercussions throughout the Gulf region.1 Low-income families and individuals in particular bore the brunt of the storm and flooding, losing their homes, jobs, and resources for recovery. Public programs had served many of these people before the hurricane hit, and many others became newly eligible as a result of it. But the impact of Katrina strained the essential components of these programs, including their funding arrangements and eligibility and benefit standards. It raised critical questions about the programs' ability to respond swiftly and fairly to families and individuals affected by the storm, and about state and local governments' incentives to respond effectively to victims' needs.

In fundamental ways, social programs were not designed to respond readily to a crisis of Katrina's dimensions. Emergency response mechanisms had to be developed and/or enacted immediately after the storm and flooding. For many months, great uncertainty existed about states' financial obligations, risks, and policy choices, and about what programs would serve which evacuees, in what ways, and for how long. Over the past seven months, a number of program changes and emergency expansions have been enacted through legislation or implemented through the executive branch. But on the whole, programs have provided limited and temporary aid to families and individuals whose lives have been fundamentally disrupted by the storm. In addition, some federal response policies have not been communicated clearly to state and local governments and were not acted upon for many months, even as the 2006 hurricane season approached.

This paper examines four key programs that help individuals and families meet basic needs and cope with crises: housing assistance provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); income replacement through Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA); health care through Medicaid; and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). These are not the only important programs for low-income people, but do represent essential national programs with responsibility shared among federal, state, and local governments. (UI, Medicaid, and TANF are shared federal-state programs; housing assistance is federally funded but administered by localities.)2

This paper first summarizes key findings from the programs' responses to Hurricane Katrina. It then describes the central features of "normal" program structures prior to the disaster, identifies particular challenges Katrina posed to these programs, explores the key policy responses to the crisis within each program, and finally offers a recommendation to enable more effective disaster responses in the future.3

Notes from this section of the report

1. As of January 2006, the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey had identified about 1.2 million Hurricane Katrina evacuees age 16 and older.

2. Programs for elderly and disabled people—such as Social Security, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income—are generally fully funded and are not included here. In addition, while the paper focuses on a selection of essential programs with a mix of intergovernmental arrangements, it does not include several other important programs for low-income people, such as Food Stamps and services funded through the Social Services Block Grant.

3. The paper examines federal and state policies as of April 2006 but does not attempt to explore fully the implementation of these policies.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Economy/Taxes | Employment | Governing | Health/Healthcare | Housing | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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