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| Posted: December 5th, 2013
As my last post indicated, average college tuition prices can be quite misleading because of the considerable variation across and within states, even within the public sector of higher education.
But there is much more to the story. Most students receive financial aid that reduces the prices they actually pay. The federal government provides Pell Grants to low- and moderate-income students—now including over a third of all undergraduates—as well as tax credits for parents and students who pay tuition—now about $17 billion a year and extending up the income scale as high as $180,000.
State governments also provide grant aid that does not have to be repaid. Like published prices, grant aid varies dramatically across the country. Some states provide aid only to students with financial need. Others ignore the students’ financial circumstances and look only at their high school GPAs or at standardized test scores. In 2011-12, state grant aid per undergraduate student ranged from under $200 in 12 states to over $1,000 in 10 states.
Colleges and universities across the country provide about as much grant aid to students as the federal government does. Community colleges and for-profit institutions don’t do much of this form of discounting, but it has become more common at four-year publics, and is most significant in the private nonprofit sector.
About half of the grant aid at public four-year colleges goes to meet financial need, with the rest designed to attract students otherwise likely to enroll elsewhere. At private colleges, just over 70 percent of the grant aid goes to meet need.
A distorted picture of student debt and higher ed prices
To understand how people pay for college, we must integrate information about all of this student aid with information about sticker prices. Full-time students at public four-year colleges and universities receive an average of about $5,800 a year in grant aid from all sources and federal tax benefits. That means that the average price tag of about $8,900 for public four-year colleges and universities in 2013-14 amounts to a net price of about $3,100.
The net prices are much less startling than the published prices. But this year’s $3,100 compares with about $1,900 (in 2013 dollars) a decade ago. Moreover, students have to cover their living costs while they are in school. And perhaps most significant, only the incomes of those at the top of the income distribution have begun to grow since the recent economic collapse.
Borrowing is part of the solution for many students, and student debt has increased over time. But the headlines frequently distort the picture. In 2011-12, only a third of all undergraduate students took federal student loans, borrowing an average of about $6,800 that year. About two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have student debt. Their debt averages about $27,000. Among undergraduates who began their studies in 2003-04, only 7 percent had accumulated as much as $30,000 in debt by 2009. (Among those who had earned bachelor’s degrees, 15 percent had borrowed this much.)
We will be better able to address the critical problems of college access and affordability if we focus on the realities instead of exaggerating the prices and the student debt issues, and if students have better access to information about the true price of higher education.
Filed under: Economy, Government |Tags: college, cost, debt, price, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: December 4th, 2013
For the past 12 years, I have coauthored the College Board’s annual reports on college prices and student aid. Every year, reporters eagerly await the news about how much more students are paying this year than they paid last year. Unfortunately, a key goal seems to be generating startling headlines rather than providing clear and practical information. Of course, the complexity of the college pricing system—including differences between sticker and net prices and the wide variation across states, students, and types of institutions—makes an accurate story difficult to tell.
The news this year is mixed. After several years of rapid tuition increases in the public sector, the average increase for public four-year colleges across the country was just 2.9 percent in 2013-14. That’s the smallest increase in over 30 years. Even after adjusting for the low level of inflation, it’s still among the smallest. That said, the $8,893 average tuition and fee price for in-state students at public four-year institutions is much higher than the $7,008 (in 2013 dollars) five years earlier and $5,900 a decade ago.
But the $8,893 average price does not really represent what most students will pay. Indiana is the only state in the nation whose price is within $100 of that average. Published prices range from $4,404 in Wyoming and $5,885 in Alaska to $13,958 in Vermont and $14,665 in New Hampshire. Since in-state prices apply only to state residents, students don’t have the option to seek out better deals elsewhere in the country.
There is, however, variation across public institutions within states. Community colleges generally have much lower tuition rates than four-year public colleges and universities. The national average price for a full-time student in 2013-14 is $3,264—just 37 percent of the average in the public four-year sector. Prices range from $1,424 in California (just 16 percent of the average four-year price there) to $7,090 in Vermont (51 percent of the average four-year price). In South Dakota, community college tuition is about three-quarters of university tuition.
But even within the four-year sector there is variation. There are flagship universities that grant doctoral degrees and where faculty are quite focused on research; master’s universities, where most graduate studies end with master’s degrees and where undergraduate admission standards tend to be less stringent; and a small number of public colleges offering only undergraduate degrees. Prices differ, ranging from an average of $9,804 at doctoral institutions to $6,918 at bachelor’s institutions.
All these prices are for state residents. Out-of-state residents are increasingly appealing to public colleges and universities because they pay higher prices, bringing badly needed revenues to campus.
These sticker prices matter because they are visible and because students may make decisions thinking this is what they will pay. But for most students that is not actually the case. Most receive assistance in the form of grants and scholarships from their institutions and/or from federal and state governments. Many pay lower taxes because of their tuition payments and, of course, many borrow.
My next post will focus on what all this financial aid means for college prices.
Filed under: Government |Tags: college, debt, prices, states, students, tuition, Urban Institute 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 21st, 2013
Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Louise Casey, director of the United Kingdom’s Troubled Families Programme. Casey has served in three successive British cabinets and is passionate about finding solutions to the deep problems that have trapped many families in intergenerational poverty. Unusual for a public official, before deciding on an approach, she personally interviewed a number of families to learn about their lives.
Much of what she learned is sadly familiar to those of us in the United States who are working to find solutions for the most vulnerable. Most depressingly, she was struck by how many people she interviewed described experiences with family violence and sexual abuse as a “normal” part of life—something they didn’t like, but also accepted as inevitable.
Sexual violence, joblessness, and psychological distress—these are just some of the problems that the most vulnerable families face, so any intervention with a chance of succeeding would have to intervene on multiple fronts. But if successful, the benefits would be undeniable. Casey estimates that serving these families effectively could save the United Kingdom billions of pounds per year in reduced costs for emergency room care, social services, and child welfare.
UK program echoes US intervention
The program Casey designed echoes the design of the HOST demonstration, with a family intervention worker (case manager) assigned to coordinate targeted support services for individual families. Like HOST, the United Kingdom’s program uses a strengths-based approach, asking families to set their own goals, like better school attendance for their children or stable housing. Casey hopes that this targeted and strategic intervention will finally break the cycle of poverty for these very vulnerable families.
Although the United Kingdom’s program is government-supported and large scale, the similarities to HOST—and to other service models targeting “frequent fliers” who drive up health care and social service costs—are striking. HOST targets the most vulnerable public housing families with intensive, two-generation service models with the goal of stabilizing both individual families and the larger community. Our new series of policy briefs highlights the complex challenges that keep these families stuck in poverty, including serious physical and mental health problems among adults and children, weak work histories, and low levels of educational attainment. Housing assistance has not protected them from other forms of hardship, and even those who are working report high levels of food insecurity.
The communities they live in can compound the family vulnerabilities. It is no surprise that Casey notes that many of the families her program serves live in social housing; as in the United States, many of these communities house large numbers of extremely poor households and have high levels of community and family violence. In Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, one of the two HOST sites profiled in our briefs, even residents who truly want to make their community a safer place for kids distrust and fear their neighbors so much that they are unable to act. The other HOST site, in Portland, is mixed-income. Residents there report higher levels of community cohesion and trust, and from our observations, seem more likely to come together to protect children and their community.
Louise Casey is gambling that the investment the UK government is making in its most troubled families will pay off in better outcomes for kids and lower costs to taxpayers. Her team is evaluating the program and tracking costs and will have early results in 2014. Although HOST is much smaller, we and our partner housing authorities and service providers are hoping that it, like its predecessor the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration, will show enough positive results for children and families to encourage other housing authorities to take on the challenge of addressing the needs of their most troubled residents.
Filed under: Government |Tags: family, HOST, poverty, services, support, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 18th, 2013
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
During the Great Depression, Congress committed the first national resources to public housing. That decision altered the course of millions of lives for the better – providing the most vulnerable Americans with a home that was otherwise out of reach and giving children the promise of a better future.
Today, the long bipartisan legacy of affordable rental housing is in doubt. Millions of Americans, including thousands in Orange County, are unable to find affordable places to rent even when they qualify for assistance.
How did we get here? After passage of the Wagner-Stegall Housing Act of 1937, the production of public housing accelerated in response to the growing need. Today, there are over 1.1 million units nationally, nearly one in five of them in rural areas. No physical units were built in Orange County.
Over time, the federal commitment to affordable rental housing grew to also include vouchers that low-income renters can use in the private market, subsidies for private owners that rent to low- and moderate-income households, and financing that helps create and preserve affordable rental units. Orange County has over 25,800 rental homes supported through these programs.
Federal rental assistance now enables 5 million low-income households -- encompassing more than 10 million people, including 4 million children -- to afford modest homes. A third are families with children, another third are seniors, and the remaining third are disabled, childless adults, disabled adults with children, and seniors with children.
While 10 million sounds like a lot, it represents just a quarter of the renters eligible for assistance. There is simply not enough federal, state, or local government funding to support all the need.
Housing is expensive, especially for low-income people. In Orange County, households need to earn $31.17 an hour — three times California’s new minimum wage — to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in the county, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Low-income families often have to spend more than a third of their income on rent, leaving them less money for other things needed to live healthy and productive lives, like nutritious food, transportation to get to work, health care, and books and supplies for school.
Another way to think about the affordable housing squeeze is the gap between what people can afford and what is available to rent. This gap in Orange County is nearly 120,000 units, which means that for every 100 very low-income households looking for a place to rent, only 41 homes are affordable and available. For households earning below $20,000 a year, only 18 rental homes are affordable and available.
To solve this problem we can raise people’s incomes through federal tax incentives like the earned income tax credit, increase the minimum wage, help workers attain the skills for higher-paying jobs, or remove regulatory barriers to lower the costs of producing housing in the private market. These are all good strategies, but as long as rents continue to rise, the incomes of low-wage people in the service economy will never catch up. We need equivalent strategies to lower the costs of renting.
With the housing budget under increasing pressure, federal efforts are focused on preserving existing public housing, not creating more. Meanwhile, tax credits for developers help produce 100,000 affordable rental units a year across the country, but without additional subsidy they are not affordable for the lowest income families. The largest source of federal assistance for these families are rental vouchers. But as rents rise, the cost of serving existing voucher recipients has grown, leaving limited resources for additional low-income households to benefit from the program.
Once the crisis besetting the conventional housing market wanes, we need a renewed and balanced national housing policy that assists both renters and owners. The federal resources subsidizing homeownership far exceed those dedicated to subsidizing rental housing for America’s lowest income citizens. All the subsidies for homeownership – the mortgage interest deduction, the deduction for property taxes, and the housing value that is not taxable – add up to about $300 billion annually. Compare this to the $37.4 billion the US Department of Housing and Urban Development spends on rental housing assistance. Throw in the tax subsidies for developers of affordable housing, which is about $8 billion a year, and there is still room for improvement.
As lawmakers in Washington get back to making policy, a balanced approach to housing finance reform should be at the top of many agendas. This would mean ensuring affordable mortgages for homeownership, as well as federal financing for affordable rental housing.
Even with more capital for affordable rental housing production and preservation, we still need a commitment to rental assistance to help the lowest income Americans secure decent, safe places to live. In a country as rich as ours, both can be done.
Rental housing in Washington, D.C. Photo by Zach McDade, Urban Institute.
Filed under: Government |Tags: homes, housing, income, poverty, rental, Urban Institute 2 Comments »
Mary Cunningham Jennifer Biess
| Posted: November 11th, 2013
This Veterans Day, as the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps former servicemembers deal with the enduring aftereffects of war, there is at least one aspect of soldier reintegration into civilian life that has improved markedly in recent decades: our system for ensuring veterans are adequately housed.
By contrast with the early eighties, when homelessness among veterans became an issue of national concern, today, assistance for those in danger of losing housing is just a phone call away. The VA staffs the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans (1-877-4AID VET) 24/7. All veterans seeking healthcare from a VA medical center are screened for their risk of homelessness and, when necessary, flagged for assistance. Those in immediate need of housing have access to numerous programs, including transitional and permanent supportive housing, to help them get back on their feet. The VA is also investing money in research and development, through the National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans, to determine how many need housing assistance, risk factors that lead to their loss of shelter, and solutions that can keep them permanently housed.
The current administration’s intentions could not be clearer. In 2009, President Obama made it his goal to end homelessness among former servicemembers by 2015. Since that year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that the number of homeless veterans has decreased 17 percent.
Thanks to these and many other resources, today, the vast majority of soldiers returning from war go on to productive and independent lives as civilians, but a very small percentage consistently remain unstably housed. They represent the last mile in reaching the president’s goal. We know little about the housing solutions that can best assist this group, but a program being piloted in five sites—Austin, TX; San Diego, CA; Tacoma, WA; Tampa Bay, FL; and Utica, NY—is providing clues.
In 2009, Congress funded the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Program (VHPD), a joint effort by HUD, the VA, and the US Department of Labor at both the federal and local levels. The VHPD deploys a spectrum of services: homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, time-limited housing search and rental assistance, case management, access to healthcare, and employment services. Across all five sites, the VHPD served 586 veterans and their families (1,366 people in 574 households) in its first year, 245 of which were recent veterans who saw active duty in the post-September 11th era.
HUD is funding an Urban Institute evaluation of the program, and, although it’s too early to draw broad conclusions, the VHPD is showing promising results.
Participants were either homeless (14 percent) or unstably housed (86 percent) when they enrolled in the VHPD. By the end of the first year, 77 percent of those who exited the program (n=950) were stably housed; 2.5 percent were unstably housed; 4 percent were at imminent risk of homelessness; and 1 percent were homeless. (Information was missing for the remaining 15 percent at the time of analysis).
The Urban Institute team that is evaluating the program conducted focus groups with participants and asked them what helped most. “That’s easy. It was the financial help,” said one veteran. “I definitely needed it.” Far and away, participants cited rental assistance as the most popular benefit. “[VHPD] paid my rent arrears,” said another former soldier. “That was the most important. It kept me off the street.”
It is unclear if those who left the VHPD stably housed will remain so without the assistance of an ongoing housing subsidy. This study will pay close attention to that question. What is already clear, however, is that housing assistance is critical: we need more of it to ensure all veterans can sleep securely and enjoy the homecoming they deserve.
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The Assisted Housing Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Assisted Housing Initiative products. The views expressed in this and other Assisted Housing Initiative commentaries are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.
Homeless veteran image from spirit of america / Shutterstock.com
Filed under: Government |Tags: homelessness, Obama, Urban Institute, veterans 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 7th, 2013
Is the Senate’s immigration reform bill a job-killer? Will it raise the deficit? Boost the economy? Add to federal, state, and local revenues? Will it lead to better wages and working conditions for immigrants?
Several studies have analyzed the bill to find answers—but their scope and methods differ, and, therefore, so do their findings. Maria Enchautegui, coauthor of “Understanding the Economic and Fiscal Impacts of Immigration Reform: A Guide to Current Studies and Possible Expansions,” urges caution in comparing one study with another, offering instead a roadmap for evaluating the studies influencing the debate.
1. Why create a guide to study the studies?
The motivation behind the study came from hearing the media compare one study with another—CBO says this, but Heritage says that, and CAP says something else—but the studies aren’t comparable. You can’t just say one study contradicts or even validates the other when they’re looking at very different things. So our goal is empowering the public to read and evaluate the studies themselves.
To do that, we examined the six studies we thought were most relevant: five studies that looked at reform scenarios similar to the Senate’s bill and an older study that has become the standard reference on immigration reform. We didn’t review studies that looked at tax revenues but not outlays or that used policy scenarios that differed from the Senate’s bill. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent report on economic and fiscal impacts of immigration reform came out as our guide was being published, so we weren’t able to include it, but we did review the report in an earlier blog post.
2. What are the bill’s potential effects on our economy and government budgets?
The Senate’s bill (S. 744) lays out a plan for legalizing undocumented immigrants in the United States, tightening border security, increasing work visas, and shortening the visa backlog. The most controversial provision is the one about legalization.
In looking at economic impacts, some studies analyze all the different provisions laid out in the Senate’s bill. Other studies have focused just on the legalization of undocumented immigrants. The most direct impact of legalization may be to immigrants’ wages and working conditions. Some think that if you legalize undocumented immigrants, they will be able to move to better jobs and will therefore be more productive and earn higher wages, which generates benefits for the economy. As it stands now, the undocumented may be poorly matched to their jobs because they can’t search for them in the open labor market. Also, some believe working conditions will improve because employers who take advantage of undocumented workers will have to comply with labor force regulations. Improved working conditions would affect all workers, including native-born workers hired by the same employers.
Not enough studies look at what legalization means for government coffers—the fiscal impact. We also need to understand the potential effects on revenues and on outlays, especially at the state and local level.
3. What are the questions readers should ask before comparing studies? What are the big differences?
First, what’s the scenario being considered? Is it the whole immigration bill or just one aspect of it?
Also, what are the assumptions the researchers make? For instance, how many people will benefit from legalization? Some studies assume every undocumented immigrant will be legalized, but CBO, in their cost estimate, says it will be far fewer. Differences of 2 to 3 million people can lead to big differences between findings. And how much will the labor force grow? CBO says the bill will lead to an increase of 6 million workers over 10 years. And what does the study assume about immigrants’ wages? What will newcomers earn and what will legalization mean for the wages of the newly legalized? For instance, Heritage’s study assumes wages for legalized immigrants will go up by 5 percent and the Center for American Progress study assumes 15 percent. Those details could lead to differences in their findings.
You also have to pay attention to the time horizon and to the second generation. Is the study looking at the impacts over a short period of time, or much longer? Heritage’s study is the only one that considered the possible cost of Social Security for retiring legalized immigrants. But Heritage does not consider the future adult contributions of children of newly legalized immigrants. Studies measure the costs and benefits of the second generation in different ways.
4. What did the studies agree on?
They agreed that immigration reform would expand the economy and boost tax revenues. Economic studies of legalization also find positive effects for the economy. There’s more disagreement about the fiscal impacts.
5. What questions still haven’t been answered?
We do not know much about state and local fiscal impacts, especially of legalization. Since a larger labor force usually will make the economy grow, studies should address what immigration means in terms of improvements in per capita income or average wages. We also don’t know how workers already residing in the United States will benefit from increased immigration or how benefits would be distributed. Immigration may improve wages for some, but other groups may see their employment and wages shrink.
Image from Chad Zuber / Shutterstock.com
Filed under: Government |Tags: evidence, immigration, reform, study, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 5th, 2013
Workers clear floodwater from a residential basement in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
We still struggle with learning the lessons about equity in all disaster policy. Who should bear the costs of preparing for a disaster and rebuilding after it, and how? Should only people directly in harm’s way pay, and should payment be different for low-income folks?
These questions are at the core of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2013, currently being considered in both the U.S. House and Senate. This bipartisan bill intends to delay many of the provisions of last year’s Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which restructured the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) by reducing subsidies provided to some of the program’s policyholders who had not been charged premiums based on the actual risks that their homes face.
As flood hazard boundaries along coasts and waterways shift, these risks are significantly increasing. One of the motivations behind the original bill, then, was to simply make the NFIP program financially solvent. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the NFIP is $24 billion in the red.
By effectively swallowing the costs from the actual risk of being prone to flood damage, the NFIP has also been criticized since its 1968 launch for incentivizing development and growth of communities on environmentally precarious land. Removing those incentives and potentially increasing the adaptability and resilience of these areas was another key motivation of the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act.
Unfortunately, affordability and equity were not central to the Act’s thinking. The skyrocketing premiums for flood insurance policyholders are more than many of them can bear. As a consequence, there is bipartisan support for a four-year delay in order to have FEMA perform more intensive affordability studies and refine the law’s administration.
But many of the potential benefits of the original bill will also be delayed, including reducing NFIP’s debt burden. What would happen to those coffers if another major disaster should strike within those four years?
The current bill is one way to introduce affordability into this piece of our national disaster mitigation framework, but there are other ways that don’t involve pushing back the provisions. For example, colleagues at the Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes have proposed a means-tested voucher and low-interest loan program to help lower- and middle-income households cover the costs of insurance while physically improving their homes’ construction.
Feasible responses to questions of affordability and equity that increase our disaster mitigation capacity will always be better than the more costly, inefficient, and chaotic efforts of disaster relief and recovery. Let’s look at the choices before us and learn a few more lessons.
Hurricane Sandy image from Shutterstock
Filed under: Government |Tags: Federal, FEMA, flood, insurance, Sandy, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 5th, 2013
Over the past three decades, the federal prison population has grown dramatically. In 1980, fewer than 25,000 Americans were incarcerated. Today, that number has increased to 219,000, due to more—and longer—prison sentences for those who break federal laws, particularly drug offenders.
This growth is unsustainable. For one, managing a prison population of that size is costly. The federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) system’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 is $6.9 billion, which would consume more than a quarter of the Department of Justice’s entire budget. Assuming no meaningful changes in policy, that share will be close to a third in a few short years. This continued funding of BOP will come at the expense of other pressing public safety activities.
Second, overcrowded federal prisons are dangerous, posing safety risks for staff and prisoners alike. And limited space means fewer places to offer much-needed educational and drug treatment programs that are crucial to prevent reoffending. This isn’t just a money issue, it’s a public safety issue.
So what can we do to tackle this expensive problem and reduce the flow of prisoners? Today, the Urban Institute released “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System.” In it, we review a number of options for cost-cutting reform to slow future growth and ease current overcrowding, including many that correspond to bipartisan legislative proposals. The bottom line? No one measure alone will do the trick; success will require a combination of both sentencing and early release policy changes.
- According to the research, lengthy drug sentences have been the major driver of the increase in the federal prison population. The single biggest way to make a dent in the prison population is to lower mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
- Cutting mandatory minimums in half could save almost $2.5 billion in 10 years. This measure alone would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades.
- Thanks to the “Safety Valve,” mandatory minimums aren’t always totally mandatory. Judges have the option to exempt certain drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentences if the offender has a minor (or nonexistent) criminal history. If a new Safety Valve were available to all offenders facing mandatory minimums, it could save $835 million over 10 years, while stabilizing dangerous overcrowding.
- Most federal prisoners currently serve more than 85 percent of their prison sentences. Lowering the minimum amount of time served to 75 percent could save $1 billion over 10 years.
- Right now, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which increases the quantity of crack cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, only applies to cases brought to court after its enactment. But if it were retroactive, about 3,000 prisoners would be eligible for immediate release.
- Most state prisoners have more options to reduce their sentences for good conduct and participation in activities or programs—and early release has not significantly affected their likelihood of committing crimes once they’re out of prison. Several proposals would grant additional earned time to federal prisoners, varying by programmatic requirements, eligibility, and the extent of the credit; for example, providing credits for intensive programming could save $45 million. Granting earned time for a broader set of programs could save $224 million, while putting low-risk prisoners who complete programming onto home confinement could save up to $112 million depending on contracting conditions.
Will any of these strategies completely fix all of the problems with federal prisons? In short, no – but the right mix of reforms could save money, substantially alleviate overcrowding, and improve the programs that keep prisoners from re-offending.
Filed under: Government, Quality of Life |Tags: crime, federal corrections, overcrowding, prisons, safety, Urban Institute 4 Comments »
| Posted: October 29th, 2013
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the Northeast exactly one year ago. Since then, with the exception of Colorado’s summer wildfires and fall flooding, our country has largely been spared the major natural disasters that wreak destruction on local communities and cause confusion among national policymakers.
But, such providence often brings amnesia. Too often, the lessons we learn from one disaster get shelved because enough time passes before we must apply them again, or because they seem irrelevant for new and apparently unique disaster scenarios.
Occasionally, though, we have learned and successfully applied lessons at all stages of disaster policy, from immediate disaster relief through long-term recovery to mitigation.
What did Sandy learn from Katrina? We can do relief better.
Hurricane Katrina’s response and recovery were marred by poor coordination among the various federal, state, and local entities that could assist or be assisted. To quote Professor Mary Comerio, one of our nation’s best authorities on natural disasters, housing, and planning, a “crisis brings out the best in people, but often the worst in institutions.”
Compared to the Katrina response, the various post-Sandy strategies show that we have learned that better management works. FEMA’s response and relief in particular were praised, much of this due to the improved post-Katrina National Disaster Recovery Framework that establishes clearer roles among federal departments and agencies.
This coordination also led to improved knowledge about who lives where, their housing status, and their service needs. Among Katrina’s victims, there was a wide range of preexisting needs that the storm exacerbated, and not much was known about how home and flood insurance policyholders would fare.
HUD’s post-Katrina assessments offered lessons about who rebuilds, when, and how. Some of these are included in the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy—one of the first comprehensively planned recovery documents in American disaster history.
What are we learning from Sandy so far? We can do recovery better.
Funds for relief and recovery still had to come from special Congressional appropriations, but the implementation of post-Sandy recovery plans demonstrates steps forward in delivering disaster assistance more efficiently and strategically than before. With its Disaster Community Development Block Grants, for example, the State of New York has offered repair and rebuilding assistance to homeowners, as well as buyout plans for those living in floodplain areas.
Sandy is also reminding us that big visions don’t always work. Little preparations and methodical changes do. Grandiose planning schemes for resilient cities and architectural manifestoes for new disaster-resilient housing almost always arise after disasters, but they rarely result in much policy or practical change. It’s the less glamorous, often technical chores of determining incentives for home elevations, making timely and accessible changes to floodplain maps, and managing private lands for the common good that are needed for long-term recovery. These seemingly obvious lessons are difficult to implement, considering the huge need during recovery but scant resources and time.
There are still some gaps that have yet to be filled after Sandy, and program outcomes remain to be seen. But implementation to date suggests that some lessons have been heeded.
What should we be learning? We can do mitigation better.
Disaster plans are often developed only after disaster has struck. We need better implementation plans for community-specific disaster and recovery plans before a crisis hits. Even with Sandy, there are still instances of delays in receiving home repair funds. Mitigation is more cost-effective, allows for more place-based strategies, and can incorporate existing community opinions more profoundly.
State and local governments should have frameworks for implementation of disaster funding, and the federal government should provide resources and requirements for this. Katrina brought these gaps in resources for mitigation and preparation to national attention, but these needs continue to be overshadowed by relief and recovery. With the luxury of time that disaster mitigation and preparation allows, we can also think about how best to design the recovery implementation strategies that yield the communities we want in the long-term, too.
Katrina exposed some spectacular weaknesses not just in public responsiveness to disasters, but also in policy instruments planned to mitigate their effects. Changes in the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program are raising premiums to more accurately reflect the risks of floods, rather than unintentionally reward disaster-prone development. More stringent building codes and other disincentives for development in high-risk areas have also ensured that market-based tools account for the risk of disaster, and steer funds and policy to more effectively filling public rebuilding and recovery needs.
We should do equity better, too.
We’re not all equally affected by disasters, nor are we all on the same social and economic playing field before a disaster hits. Uninsured homeowners in Mississippi, individuals with physical mobility challenges in Louisiana’s post-Katrina settlements, public housing residents in New York, homeowners in New Jersey who can’t afford their new flood insurance premiums—there are many Americans who live in harm’s way but don’t have the resources to move or improve their homes. Potential strategies include a concept for supporting low-income households subjected to higher flood insurance premiums.
We should remember.
None of these lessons are new. Some go back to past disasters, and to disasters in other nations. In almost all of the cases, the costs of relief and recovery have gone up—and the funding for mitigation has not. Expectations of the federal government covering relief and recovery has grown as much as the costs—not a sustainable disaster funding plan.
Disasters will continue, and some may repeat with more frequency. Before the next big one, it might be worth dusting off those lesson books even if it doesn’t seem cloudy out today.
Photo from Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock
Filed under: Government |Tags: disaster, Katrina, planning, Sandy, Urban Institute 2 Comments »