Political Disasters: The Politics of U.S. Disaster Relief, 1927-2005



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This study combines the fields of political and environmental history to understand the evolution of federal disaster relief policy in the United States from 1927-2005, specifically the development of US federal natural disaster relief as a component of the welfare state. The institutionalization of disaster relief as a function of the welfare state occurred because the New Deal’s unprecedented bureaucratic apparatus combined with major disasters and the need for assistance; the confluence established the government’s dominate role in disaster relief. Over the course of the twentieth century, federal disaster relief policy developed and increased alongside the expansion of presidential authority and a welfare state that increasingly became bureaucratically complex. Yet, at the same time, the success of the welfare state has been stymied by consistent traditions of individualism, limited government, a belief in the market economy, and ineffective bureaucracy. In examining the affects of disaster policy on the people, disaster relief, like the welfare state in general, often overlooks the people who would most benefit from federal help because it focuses primarily on the maintenance and extension of capitalism. This study also describes the negative affects of disaster relief policy on certain groups and classes such as racial and ethnic minorities and those who do not own property. The study helps to explain why federal relief has historically failed to directly ease the burdens of many disaster victims. The simple answer: it was never designed for that purpose.



Disaster relief, Natural disasters