One of the few upsides of major surgery is that doctors sometimes tell people to eat hearty in the weeks leading up to it. Your body will be undergoing a trauma followed by a period of recovery and needs the resources to rise to those extraordinary challenges.
Natural disasters — Hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria, or earthquakes like the ones that just hit Mexico — are also marked by trauma and recovery. Far too many Americans, not to mention people around the world, are not fortified to withstand them.
The National Diaper Bank Network I run sent approximately 1 million diapers to communities affected by Harvey and Irma, which struck the U.S. within days of each other. Our relief efforts are connected to the work that we do every day to ensure that the basic needs of babies living in poverty are met.
The poor or near-poor are the first knocked down by storms and the last to get back up. Natural disasters push 26 million people around the world into poverty annually, according to the World Bank. The organization published a report with the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery that states:
“The impact on poverty is large because poor people are exposed to hazards more often, lose more as a share of their wealth when hit, and receive less support from family and friends, financial systems, and governments.
“In fact, disasters can push people into poverty, and so disaster risk management can be considered a poverty reduction policy. And since poverty reduction policies make people less vulnerable, they can be considered part of the disaster risk toolbox.”
In concrete terms: If you are middle class or above, you’re probably able to buy your family plane tickets on short notice. You’ve got a reliable car. You’ve got a homeowners policy that — though it will be a long, painful process — will replace your house and belongings.
You’ve got a sister with room to put you up, a friend who can lend you a car while you get your bearings in a new city, and so on.
But suppose you are one of the 34% of Americans who have no savings account and that you’re also part of the 38% who do not have a credit card . Chances are, your friends and family are living lean too. The money you have to prepare for a storm is what you have in your wallet. And that will also be the money you’ll have after the storm to get by should your place of work be closed for days, weeks or more.
At this writing, the national average gas price is $2.66 a gallon. We’ll assume there is no price-gouging and go with that number. That makes a fill-up about $43, which will get the average vehicle 397 miles. If you were driving out of Key West ahead of Irma, that would have taken you to the mainland and not much farther.
And regardless of transportation, leaving may be impossible for a low-income person. People who can leave the path of severe weather tend to do it well ahead of the storm to avoid grounded planes and clogged roads.
Imagine you are an hourly wage employee. Would you choose to lose days of wages for something that might not happen?
Or suppose you decide to ride the storm out at home. A case of bottled water, a 12-pack of D-batteries, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread and a bag of apples (cold food only — you don’t have a generator) will set you back about $37 and last a family of three a couple of days.
That’s probably not a crisis at the beginning of the month, when low-income households tend to do their big food shopping after receiving food stamps. But we know that the cupboard is often bare by the end of the month.
Only 41% of American renters carry renters insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Many renters simply cannot afford the protection. Renters spend, on average, nearly half of their income on rent and utilities. Add in food, transportation and health care, and it is no wonder that they are skipping insurance.
Because of manmade problems, low-income people have no shelter from the storm, or from other natural disasters — not financially and sometimes not even literally. No one can say when and where the next big one will hit. But I can guarantee you that helping families climb out of poverty right now is the best way to limit its damages.