DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're hearing this morning the latest from Alabama, where a deadly tornado hit on Sunday, the deadliest in the United States since 2013. People there will be hoping for federal disaster aid. And this morning, we are bringing you an exclusive NPR investigation. It is found that, across the United States, white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal aid after disaster than do minorities and those with less wealth. This is because federal aid is allocated based on cost-benefit calculations meant to minimize taxpayer risk and not based on need.
NPR's Robert Benincasa and Rebecca Hersher did this investigation, and Rebecca is with us in the studio this morning.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.
GREENE: So why is this? Why is federal aid not always going to those who need it the most?
HERSHER: The federal government spends a lot of money rebuilding and preventing future damage after disasters. So they do things like giving out money for a down payment on a new apartment, let's say, after a house has flooded. Or a new car, if your car is destroyed. Or even buying out properties that have flooded repeatedly so no one else will live there. And you might assume that that money is going to people who have the most need. But actually, often, it's going to Americans with other safety nets.
GREENE: So give me an example to help us, if you can.
HERSHER: So let's take low-interest loans first. So the federal government gives low-interest loans to help families who, let's say, have lost all their belongings in a flood. But you have to have a certain credit score to qualify, and that's to protect the taxpayer because if you don't pay the money back, we all do. Often, people who have more money have been able to maintain higher credit scores.
Here's another example - property buyouts. So the federal government will sometimes buy properties with federal and local money after a disaster, like floods. And the land gets turned into permanent green space. And in the future, no other homes or businesses or potential lives will be lost there. That's the point of the buyout.
GREENE: So if they're buying out property, you have to be a property owner to benefit from that. And people with more wealth are generally more often property owners. Is that how this is working?
HERSHER: Mm-hmm. And there have been barriers to property ownership in the U.S. for various people, various racial groups, as well.
HERSHER: So even among homeowners, we found white people are more likely to get a buyout. So NPR's Robert Benincasa - he's my reporting partner on this project - he got a list of properties that the federal government has bought. There are about 40,00 of them. Robert filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The federal government denied it. NPR sued. Eventually, we won.
So when we got it, Robert took all the ZIP codes associated with the property addresses and linked them to U.S. census data on demographics. And we found that nationally, sales of flood-damaged homes happened most often in places where the population was more than 85 percent white. Now, for context, the whole country is about 62 percent white.
GREENE: So that's dramatic. So is the federal government responding to this now that you have seen these numbers and done this investigation?
HERSHER: They are. So we interviewed David Maurstad, who oversees FEMA's buyout program. And he said the program is working if it makes the community less risky, it saves property and if it potentially saves lives. It's not designed to consider demographics. And he points out correctly that they don't actually choose which properties are offered buyouts. That's what local governments do.
GREENE: So he's not denying that demographics are involved here. I mean, any way you look at this, this is a system that is picking winners and losers.
HERSHER: Exactly - and often along racial lines. So I talked to two researchers for this project who have looked across the country at the county level to see how net worth changes after disaster. And they found that, on average, black people lose wealth and white people gain wealth after a disaster. And that effect is even more intense for renters versus homeowners. And there's one more kicker. If the federal government is spending more and more and more money because of climate change, then you're going to see all of these effects exacerbated in the coming years because precipitation is getting more intense.
GREENE: Becky, thanks a lot.
HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.