Combatting The Climate Crisis By Redesigning The Social Safety Net

October 18, 2023

Nearly every day, another state is celebrating investments in clean energy. The Inflation Reduction Act has created over 170,000 jobs and spurred historic investments in sustainable infrastructure nationwide. Yet despite strides in mitigating the long-term effects of climate change, a critical piece in addressing the climate crisis is missing: ensuring our social safety net can protect our most vulnerable from an already changed climate.

In just the past few months, we’ve seen the devastating Maui fires, a relentless Phoenix heatwave and an uncharacteristic Southern California hurricane. Due to the frequency and costliness of devastation this year, President Biden recently indicated that unless Congress authorizes more funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it will soon run out of money.

This is sadly our new normal.

Over 132 million people are facing extreme poverty by 2030 due to global warming. Historically marginalized communities—who often live in disaster-prone areas and have fewer resources to adapt and recover from climate-related events—are already bearing the brunt of the impact. The federal government and state agencies alike have an urgent responsibility to rethink our infrastructure for disaster response and improve the way we fund and deliver public benefits as these climate change-fueled disasters continue to spike.

Meeting this mandate will require a four-fold approach: increasing funding for FEMA and programs addressing the chronic effects of our changing climate, ensuring disaster-prone states are building proactive responses locally to preempt and supplement federal efforts, making investments into current infrastructure to ensure faster and more equitable distribution of funds and assembling a team with both deep technical expertise and understanding of government processes to build these systems.

National initiatives already exist to address the ongoing effects of global warming, but they’re falling short as extreme weather conditions intensify. For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) sets aside billions of dollars to help families afford heating and cooling each year. Last year, about 85% of LIHEAP was used for winter heating bills, leaving little assistance for summer.

This year, nearly 30 million households nationwide qualified for the subsidy, but less than 3% received it for their summer bills, even with record-breaking heat and skyrocketing energy bills. Many report not even attempting to apply even if they were eligible because funds are so competitive and require multi-step verification. Earlier this year, Senator Markey and Congressman Jamaal Brown proposed to up LIHEAP funding by $40 billion and streamline the application process, a much-needed step to expand and improve the program.

A robust response to a changing climate also requires that state and local governments augment federal efforts. For example, in response to increasing droughts and water prices, the State of Maryland created its Water4All program, which provides water subsidies for individuals within 200% of the poverty line. After a successful pilot in the city of Baltimore, the program received $15 million at the state level, underscoring the need for more regional investment and the technology to support these programs.

Fortunately, the Treasury Department just expanded the use of American Rescue Plan Act funding to allow state and local governments to use unspent COVID relief dollars to support these kinds of programs. States like Arizona, Oregon, California and others dealing with recurring flooding or wildfires should consider leveraging these dollars to proactively prepare for storms by fortifying existing infrastructure.

In addition to rethinking our laws and how we fund climate initiatives, we need better government technology systems and more tech leaders working in the public sector to help reimagine a social safety net that allows us to adapt and respond to global warming. Policy and available funding is one thing, but ensuring they create real change is another.

In times of crisis, applicants should be able to quickly and easily understand how to access the benefits they need. It’s the responsibility of our systems to be transparent about which programs are available and how to access them, taking the burden off of those going through the most difficult times of their lives. This is where modern tech comes in, which is vital to building efficient and accurate identification systems, streamlining paperwork and using data to effectively and equitably administer benefits. The good news is agencies like FEMA are beginning to make strides on this front by reducing paperwork for those impacted by disasters.

But we need to go beyond just throwing tech at the problem. More sophisticated software won’t move the needle in a meaningful way if we’re not taking into account the underlying forces that have shaped the government systems that exist today. We need to move away from our habit of evaluating government employees based on their ability to check off bureaucratic boxes instead of creating positive user experiences and providing high-quality service. That means making it easier to bring in experts with both technical expertise and a deep understanding of government processes to dismantle systems that make it hard to focus on building easy-to-use tech and create new structures that incentivize creative thinking and outcome-driven processes.

With natural disasters fueling massive storms, we need an all-hands-on-deck effort across the public and private sectors to build a public benefits system that can withstand climate change. That requires not only adequate funding, focused policy and innovative technology, but also convening a group of experts with the right backgrounds and experience to understand how to build systems that actually work for both case managers and those in need. Our most vulnerable and society at large depend on it.

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