Dorothea Lange/ Drought refugees from Oklahoma on the roadside in Blythe, California, 1936
The consequences of job displacement and income insecurity after a climate-related disaster, particularly for women, has become a more urgent threat than the imminent devastation of our planet.
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This is the second installment of DAME’s ongoing series, “Women & Money.” Read the full series here.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people in New Orleans who were displaced from public housing faced an impossible cycle. They needed both jobs and a safe place to live, but they needed one in order to be able to get the other. Those who relocated to Houston and Baton Rouge were asked by potential employers whether they intended to stay or move back. A 2015 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that this double bind hurt women most. Low-income Black women who had lived in New Orleans public housing before Katrina were particularly hurt by their communities being broken and displaced. They were given vouchers for housing that made it more expensive than it was before. One woman who was trying to find a job in Houston said that when employers learned she was from New Orleans—either by hearing her speak or looking at her work history—they would say they had already filled the position. Another woman in Houston was able to find a job and then a promotion, but her hourly pay at her retail coordinator job was still only $8.21. She borrowed money from her sister, mother, and daughter and was still living “paycheck to paycheck.”
The failure of government programs like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Labor to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina ensured that working-class people would be submerged in deeper cycles of debt. The programs in place to help make up for lost income from natural disasters exclude the working class through requirements for a certain credit score or an arduous application process. As it is in the rest of the country, the poverty rate is higher for women than it is for men in New Orleans, and the wage gap for both white women and Black women, compared to white men, has become worse since Katrina.
What is typically called “natural disasters,” for lack of a better term, are in fact not natural at all, and not everyone is equally at risk. Scientists have found that climate change is making weather more extreme. Greenhouse gas emissions create rising temperatures and sea levels. The people who die in wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods likely could not afford to hire private firefighters, a plane ticket, or perhaps a hotel room. Weather events that leave exponential devastation in their wakes are the direct result of the actions of fossil fuel corporations and the politicians they pay. Rather than provide people with enough housing, food, and money when the worst happens, the government exploits female labor with the expectation that women under capitalism should work for free in the domestic sphere and then again outside the house for meager wages. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men and have less economic power than men do. And the climate crisis is making it even harder for women to be able to afford their basic needs.
According to a 2007 study called “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters” that looked at 141 countries over two decades, natural disasters lower life expectancy for women more than for men—and the disparity is more pronounced among poor people, killing more women than men or killing younger women than men. Some of the reasons cited are that women are likely to put themselves at risk during disasters looking out for the well-being of others, and they also may find themselves in dangerous situations due to their social roles. Elderly women who live alone, as well as paid and unpaid domestic laborers, are likely to spend the day in poorly built homes, as opposed to, say, an office building, leaving them vulnerable when disaster strikes. During Katrina, 35 percent of victims died in private homes.
“When resources become scarcer, then the part of the population suffering from discrimination beforehand will necessarily be hit even harder,” wrote economists Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics & Thomas Plümper of the University of Essex.
Low-income and middle-class jobs that are overwhelmingly held by women also pose greater risks during climate-induced natural disasters. For example, flight attendants, who are more than 75 percent female in the U.S., see climate change threaten both their pay and safety. Increasingly extreme turbulence on airplanes, made worse by increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, poses a danger for passengers and crew. According to Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), a union that represents 50,000 flight attendants: “For flight attendants, who are often in the aisles, these incidents pose a serious occupational risk.” A Delta flight attendant broke her arm when, as Nelson explained, “the flight attendant serving drinks—and the 300-pound drink cart—was slammed against the ceiling of the plane.”
Climate change also threatens earnings, according to Nelson, because flight attendants are paid by the hour during flights. Trips that get canceled due to extreme weather like heat waves and storms result in lost wages for these workers. Service industry workers, too, lose wages when restaurants and other attractions close due to extreme weather.
We’ve seen how climate change has affected the agriculture industry—from the availability and cost of food, to how it influences global trade. But this top-down viewpoint often overlooks who is suffering most. Farmworkers, 700,000 of whom in the U.S. are female, not only witness the danger of climate change firsthand (extreme heat is deadly for outdoor workers) but they are suffering financially because of it as well. One field worker at a vineyard in Maricopa, California said that her hours were reduced last June because of the extreme heat, cutting her weekly pay from $400 to $230. She said in Spanish: “It affects us a lot. At the end of the week we earn less, which affects us as workers because we have bills and we have to pay for childcare.”
The United Farm Workers of America sued the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health in 2012 over at least 28 farm workers who died from heat-related injuries since 2005. One of them was 62-year-old Maria de Jesus Bautista, who died in August 2008 after picking grapes in Riverside County in 110-degree heat. She told her sister she was experiencing “headache, nausea and cold sweats.” Her family did not receive any compensation from the lawsuit.
There are many examples of workers in California put in unsafe situations with devastating results. The same year, 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who was pregnant, died after pruning grapevines in 95-degree weather. She worked nine hours without shade or water. The state added safety regulations for working in heat, but the issue persists as temperatures continue to skyrocket.
Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida, a nonprofit social justice organization, said that people who work picking crops put their health at risk and are afraid to tell anyone about it—people who are undocumented are especially likely to remain quiet. “We’re finding more and more people that have dehydration … and symptoms of heat stress,” Economos said. “They’re afraid to report to their supervisor or the crew leader or the labor contractor if they have symptoms of heat stress because they’re afraid they’ll be pulled off the job.”
Community displacement also impacts workers’ ability to find and sustain reliable income, and support their families. The 2015 study from IWPR emphasized that Katrina destroyed people’s vital support systems. Without their communities, women who stayed in New Orleans and those who left to Houston and Baton Rouge struggled to stay afloat financially. “Although most women were relatively secure before the storm, many were unable to return to what they considered a basic level of stability by 2010 in all three cities,” the researchers found.
Jacquelyn Litt, a professor at Rutgers, explained that poor Black families in New Orleans were devastated by Katrina because they became isolated from their previous support systems. “More than half the poor families in the city were headed by single mothers,” she said. “[They] are reliant on interdependent community networks for their everyday survival and resources. The displacement that happened after Katrina essentially eroded those networks. It places women and their children at much greater risk.”
A 2016 report at Tulane by political science professors Mirya Holman and Chloe Schwanz analyzed census data and found that after Katrina, more women lived in poverty or homelessness, and that “the proportion of women not in the labor force (but not unemployed) increased from 9 percent to 19 percent of the female population from 2005 to 2014. As of 2014, women in New Orleans are participating in the labor force at a slightly lower rate (70.9 percent) as women in the United States as a whole (72.3 percent). This is a change from pre Katrina, when women in New Orleans outpaced U.S. women in their participation.”
Government aid programs, including the voucher system, failed to save women from hardship. Women were confused about which housing programs they could access and which documents they needed to join. Women also said they had little help from the bureaucratic Housing Authority of New Orleans. The IWPR study also found that “women in all three cities in the years after the disaster blamed their inability to get jobs where they were on the lack of transportation combined with their relative isolation. In addition, women in Houston and Baton Rouge reported prejudice against those from New Orleans as part of the experience of seeking a job, while those back in New Orleans described encountering prejudice against former residents of public housing.”
One woman explained that she stayed before the storm because of her health. She thought that if she were healthier maybe she would have been able to move somewhere safer before disaster struck. But she was pregnant, which, alongside her diabetes and asthma, made escaping the storm seem unlikely. “Plus,” she added, “I just didn’t have the transportation.
According to a Stanford study published in May, climate change has likely played a direct role in making rich countries richer and poor countries poorer. Another recent study on the economic consequences of climate change predicted that the climate crisis will lead to an increase of deaths in the southern U.S. The researchers also pointed to an increase in “high-risk labor,” where workers are exposed to rising temperatures, such as construction, mining, agriculture, and manufacturing fields. Workers indoors at garment factories and warehouses are also at risk.
There has to be a way to protect workers and stop climate change, because they are one in the same. The destruction of the fossil fuel industry would put some people out of their jobs, but it is possible for the government to provide people with better, safer jobs, or better yet, provide them with healthcare, housing, and a weekly check. It’s a common-sense solution that few politicians have supported. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal to address climate change and create work opportunities has been criticized as a possible job killer, but Nelson of the AFA argued that climate change is much more dangerous to workers.
Nelson explained the distinction recently at an event hosted by the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America: “We can fight climate change and create good jobs with rights and benefits. That’s why I support a Green New Deal. But we can only fight climate change if we stand together, if we listen and respect our brothers and sisters in the energy sector, and we demand the rich and the powerful pay their fair share in the fight against climate change.”
Natural disasters often increase violence toward women, children, and transgender people because of a variety of factors that cut people off from the community keeping them safe. In particular, lack of institutional support following a climate disaster increases the rates of violence against women. According to domestic violence and sexual assault organizations in Puerto Rico, the rate of gender-based violence spiked after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. The overcrowded temporary housing and a failure of government hotlines and shelters made people particularly vulnerable; at least 12 people died of domestic violence following Maria.
Healthcare is prohibitively expensive in the U.S., catered to create massive profits for pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. What is particularly galling is that many health issues directly derived from fossil fuel companies’ greed can be so expensive—and deadly. In 2018, Americans spent an estimated $3.65 trillion on health care. People both with employer-provided health insurance and without it often have to rely on the generosity of family members and Gofundme donations because the efforts to implement comprehensive, universal health care coverage have been stalled by Republicans and corporate Democrats. Many health concerns common among women are also exacerbated by extreme weather. Climate change may be linked to heart attacks; heart disease is a leading cause of death among women, accounting for about one fifth of all female deaths in the U.S. in 2017. Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, which has been linked to pollution. The labor of reproduction, which is increasingly deadly in the United States, is made even more dangerous by high temperatures. To put public health at risk for profit is fundamentally wrong; to ask that vulnerable people also foot the inflated bill seems like cruel and unusual punishment.
According to National Nurses United, the union representing 150,000 nurses in the U.S.: “We witness daily the illness brought on by environmental injustice in our communities; disease from air pollution, inadequate access to clean water, substandard and polluted housing, and toxic dumping. We know that globally 8 million people die annually from illnesses directly attributable to air pollution, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Another woman from New Orleans interviewed for the IWPR study experienced the limits of government aid in December 2008. She had just given birth to her third child, and the electric company called to say that her power was being shut off because of late payments. She was issued a Section 8 voucher for a rental but had to pay $400 for electricity, nearly $800 for utilities, and a “post-Katrina” rent. She was particularly frustrated about creditors.
“It was a natural disaster,” she said. “I didn’t do this! You will have more money than I ever will and you’re calling me because I owe you?”
Studies show a range of ways that climate change can hurt people who are pregnant and their babies. Research indicates that air pollution can lead to miscarriages and premature birth. Increased heat during pregnancy may lead to heart defects.
“One of the reasons that people focus on reproductive outcomes is that we can see the effects of environmental exposures more immediately than something like cardiovascular disease, where we wait decades to see an impact,” said Harvard researcher Audrey Gaskins. “These early reproductive endpoints are like a canary in the coal mine—if we’re seeing an effect on fertility, and pregnancy loss, it’s a sign that the pollution is acting on the body in a way that’s detrimental. Who knows what else we’re going to see.”
Government programs should be able to help people avoid ruin from climate change, but often the bureaucratic systems prove completely inaccessible for the working class. Many benefits exist to help people after extreme weather hits, but they are much better in theory than in practice. Voucher systems for housing like the one put in place in New Orleans can be confusing, but they also fail to give people enough to make their own choices about where and how to live. The Department of Labor provides disaster unemployment assistance but only allows victims a 30-day window to fill out the application. Federal aid programs aimed at disaster relief can include prohibitive standards. Janice Perry-Evans, a Black post office worker in Houston and mother of three, received $2,500 from FEMA after Hurricane Harvey. That money, as any working class person knows, could only stretch so far. She often worked six days a week at the post office, but she wasn’t paid enough there to cover expenses either. She asked the government for more help, but she hadn’t earned enough income to qualify for help from the Internal Revenue Service, and her credit score was too low to qualify for a loan from the Small Business Administration. Then, she asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development for help, but there she was told her income was too high to be considered. Although programs are technically in place to assist the victims of the climate crisis, they often exclude the people who need the most help.
There is no reason that a wealthy country like the United States would be unable to fight for the health and economic security of the people most vulnerable to the effects of fossil fuels on the planet. We all deserve better. The U.S. can afford to abandon fossil fuels and enact social programs to ensure that people live in health and dignity—in fact, it’s the only choice we have.
This is the second in our ongoing series, “Women & Money.” If you missed it, check out the first piece, which explored the critical question, “Can women ever build their own wealth?”
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