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The Political Economy of FEMA Disaster Payments


  • Thomas A. Garrett,

    1. Senior Economist, Research Division, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63102. Phone 1–314–444–8601, Fax 1–314–444–8731, E-mail
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  • Russell S. Sobel

    1. Associate Professor, Department of Economics, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506. Phone 1–304–293–7864, Fax 1–304y293–5652, E-mail
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      An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2001 Public Choice Society meetings in San Antonio, Texas, and the 2001 Southern Economic Association annual meetings in Tampa, Florida. We have benefited from the helpful comments of an anonymous referee of this journal and discussions with Daniel Sutter, Jacob Gersen, John Charles Bradbury, and Brian Knight, as well as other program participants. Remaining errors are our responsibility. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the Federal Reserve System, or the Board of Governors.


We find that presidential and congressional influences affect the rate of disaster declaration and the allocation of FEMA disaster expenditures across states. States politically important to the president have a higher rate of disaster declaration by the president, and disaster expenditures are higher in states having congressional representation on FEMA oversight committees. Election year impacts are also found. Our models predict that nearly half of all disaster relief is motivated politically rather than by need. The findings reject a purely altruistic model of FEMA assistance and question the relative effectiveness of government versus private disaster relief.