A Media and Public Opinion (MPO) Research Group poll from June 2013 asked Americans who should be responsible for disaster relief: individuals, local communities, state governments or the federal government. The question proved to be divisive, with large portions of the population putting their preference behind either the federal government or the state governments.
A previous article published on MPO Post discussed some of the debate around limiting federal disaster relief funding. While the issue does receive press coverage and provokes politicians to make impassioned statements for or against federal funding, this only happens when the public’s attention is most focused on disasters (such as the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy). During calmer periods, when there is a possibility of levelheaded debate, the issue seems largely ignored.
Dr. Donald Kettl, Dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, points to the large number of respondents who ‘don’t know’ who should pay for disaster relief as an indicator of the “ambivalence that lies at the core of the issue.”
The ambivalence likely stems from a sense of distance most Americans have from most disasters. Dr. Kettle elaborates on what mindset is represented in the survey results:
“Disaster response is one of the most narrowcast pieces of government we have. Even mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy affect a relatively small share of the population, and it’s tempting for taxpayers everywhere to think that the states where disasters occur ought to take the lead. But large-scale disasters can quickly swamp the ability of even the largest governments, so there is an almost inevitable, irresistible push toward a bit role by the feds. It’s not unusual for a just a third of Americans to believe that the feds ought to play the primarily role—unless it’s their disaster and they are the ones who need help.”
Indeed, the ‘it’s not a federal problem until it is my problem’ mentality is evident through observation of Congressional representatives. In March, two senators from Oklahoma requested federal funding for tornado relief in their home state despite opposing the bill to provide Hurricane Sandy relief. These two came under fire from the media, but the fact is that 31 of the ‘no’ votes came from senators that had previously requested emergency aid for their own states.
Arguing over when it is and is not appropriate to fund disaster relief with federal tax dollars ultimately solves nothing. Besides, as Dr. Kettle notes: “In any significant disaster, the best response is a coordinated response that involves federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. We do best when we weave our response together—not when we battle over who’s in charge.”