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Weathering the Storm: How Companies Profit off of Natural Disasters and Young People’s Economic Instability

In this image taken from video provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, smoke from a wildfire drifts towards Santa Barbara Airport in the distance in Santa Barbara, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. The Thomas Fire is now the third-largest in California history.

CREDIT: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP.

In 2017, extreme weather disasters were at an all-time high, and young people’s economic stability and ability to cope with those disasters were at an all-time low. As of October 2017, the National Centers for Environmental Information determined that the United States had the most billion-dollar disasters for the year-to-date ever, at 15 (tied with 2011) and with 282 lives lost. Between 1980 and 2016 there was an average of 5.5 of these kinds of high-damage events per year. In the last five years that data has been available (between 2012 and 2016), that number has nearly doubled, to an average of 10.6 events per year. This uptick in natural disasters is anything but natural: climate change has fueled both the increase in the number of extreme weather disasters, and their intensity.  

In 2017 alone wildfires ravaged California, where footage of uncontrollable fires went viral, and caused $2 billion in economic damage and 42 fatalities. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricanes Irma and Maria’s wrath took between 51 and 450 lives this fall and caused $95 billion in economic damage. Almost simultaneously, Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Louisiana and Texas, taking 84 lives and causing $180 billion in damage. The list goes on. But these disasters are more than just record-breaking numbers. They are the stories of lives lost, whole towns destroyed, and families thrown into financial ruin. And all too often, they are the stories of young people—young people whose lives have been put on hold and, in some cases, permanently altered, because of natural disasters.

While extreme weather disasters affect everyone, those who live paycheck to paycheck suffer the most. A 2017 brief from the Center for American Progress found that extreme weather tends to more severely impact low- and middle-income communities than wealthier communities. Financially unable to do much to prepare for extreme weather disasters, low- and middle-income Americans are also least able to afford the recovery process for disasters. Young people make up a disproportionate subset of this population.

In 2015, 13.5 million Millennialsnearly one-fifth of all Millennials—fell below the poverty line. More Millennials live in poverty today than older generations did at the same age, and wages for a 30-year-old today are lower than they were for a 30-year-old in 2004. Across the country, everyone is reeling from an undeniable increase in natural disasters, and young people, by virtue of their generationally precarious economic situation, are disproportionately affected.

While young people struggle to rebuild their lives, some will profit off of their pain. For example, after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, used car dealerships will rake in millions off of flood-damaged cars by reselling them for a profit despite their flooded history. Payday lenders in California will take advantage of families who have lost their homes to charge them exorbitant interest rates on meager loans. Corner stores in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto will double, triple, or quadruple their prices for victims of the recent hurricanes. And companies like the Home Depot, that sell the very materials needed to preserve—and then rebuild—one’s home after a natural disaster, will continue to fund climate denial efforts so that their business will remain profitable. These are the the profiteers of extreme weather disasters. These are the people who profit off of the terrible intersection of increasingly extreme weather and young people’s economic instability. In order to protect young people from the effects of extreme weather–both physically and financially–it’s important to understand who profits off of them, from used car dealers and payday lenders to price-gougers and companies that sell protective material while lobbying against climate change efforts. Corporate greed is no excuse for pushing young people over the edge of economic stability.

Used Car Dealerships

Hurricanes Harvey caused immeasurable damage, from homes and businesses to schools and restaurants. But one area of damage is often overlooked—and often predatory: automobiles. According to Cox Automotive, an Atlanta-based automotive company, Hurricane Harvey left as many as half a million cars damaged. Cars that have been insured and protected for this kind of situation will be inspected and assessed by insurance companies, which will then note in the car’s history that the car has been flood-damaged before attempting to repair or sell it. But not all cars are insured, or comprehensively insured. When that happens, and a flood or other natural disaster damages the car, the car’s owner will attempt to get the car repaired or sell it. But in this situation, the owner is not required to record in the car’s history that it has been damaged by a flood.  Some companies take advantage of this loophole, purposefully buying flood-damaged cars from owners who lack insurance so they can then resell them to new buyers without ever disclosing that the cars have been flood-damaged. And if flood-damaged cars are transported across the country, as they often are, even buyers in places not affected by severe weather may unknowingly end up with a lemon. “It’s going to happen, that’s inevitable,” Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau told CNBC. “Look at all those vehicles floating around. There are people who will try to take advantage of the situation.”

These profits are being made on the backs of young people whether they are the sellers or unsuspecting buyers, all so some companies can turn a pretty (and pretty unethical) profit.

Payday Lenders

Payday lenders offer fast loans, and at a price. Targeting mainly low-income people on the edge of financial insecurity, payday lenders charge wildly high interest rates, sometimes as high as 300 percent. A recent study by the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans say they do not have enough money to cover an unexpected $400 expense. Payday lenders take advantage of this, helping low- and middle-income individuals out with a short-term infusion of cash, but trapping them in a vicious long-term cycle of high interest rates and debt that becomes impossible to repay. Often having to borrow over and over again to keep up with payments, the median payday loan borrower winds up in debt for more than six months. Payday lenders have often targeted financially vulnerable service members, and the Department of Defense has called payday lenders a threat to military readiness, while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has spent years developing a new rule that limits payday lenders’ ability to take advantage of low-income individuals.

While payday lenders pose a threat year-round to low- and middle-income individuals, they have even more of an opportunity to take advantage of vulnerable Americans when natural disasters strip people of the little savings they have. Folks without any kind of emergency fund are forced to turn to payday lenders. And the victims of payday lenders tend to skew young: a 2012 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 52 percent of people who took out payday loans were between the ages of 25 and 44. These financially vulnerable individuals may receive the short-term help they need, but because of interest rates in the double or even triple digits, may soon find themselves owing far more than their original loan, and if working a minimum-wage job, unable to ever pay it back.

Price Gougers

Payday lenders aren’t the only ones making money on the backs of low-income young people in the wake of natural disasters: price-gouging companies that jack up prices on things like bottled water and airline tickets in disaster-affected areas also turn extreme weather into extreme profits. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the U.S. Department of Transportation received complaints from consumers about potential price gouging. Ashwin Mehta, a recent college graduate, lives and works in Houston and experienced the damage of the recent Hurricanes first-hand. “I know some friends in the more devastated areas experienced 20 bucks for a pack of water,” he told Generation Progress. Mehta himself was spared from price-gouging, but says he waited in line for hours before grocery stores opened in order to get supplies first-come first-serve.

Who suffers the most from price-gouging? Low-income individuals and families, many of them young, who can’t afford to spend an extra ten dollars on water. Although many airlines—the subject of many price-gouging accusations—instituted caps on ticket prices (which normally fluctuate in response to supply and demand) in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there’s nothing to guarantee companies will continue this practice in the future. And there’s certainly no law in place outlawing companies already engaging in price gouging from continuing to do so. Though some argue that price-gouging is an organic part of the marketplace, allowing rising prices to drive more supply and eventually lower prices, this logic is flawed when it comes to extreme weather. How can additional supply be infused into an area like Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands immediately after a once-in-a-lifetime storm has hit and destroyed local airports and cargo boats? The truth is, no matter how high demand is, when natural disasters strike, there is often no physical opportunity for supply to keep up and drive prices back down. Price-gouging companies take advantage of our most financially vulnerable, and sometimes during the most vulnerable times in their lives: when entire communities have been destroyed by natural disaster.

Companies That Sell Extreme-Weather Materials While Funding Climate Denial

There will always need to be companies that sell materials to protect and rebuild homes and buildings harmed by extreme weather disasters. This would be true regardless of whether or not climate change was speeding up the frequency and intensity of these kinds of events. But when companies sell protective materials while funding climate denial efforts, their behavior becomes predatory. They are essentially risking the future of our planet—and the multitudes of lives within it—to ensure they can continue turning a profit. Take Home Depot, a giant in the home building and repair industry. The company, headquartered in Atlanta, sets up a hurricane command center when it learns of a significant hurricane. And then they prepare, shipping desperately needed extra protective supplies and rebuilding materials to stores in locations expected to be hit. This is nothing more than a smart business practice. And it works: after Hurricane Sandy devastated large swaths of the New Jersey coastline in 2012, Home Depot pocketed $242 million the next quarter, attributing much of that figure to an increase in business from Sandy. But Home Depot’s actions take on a different meaning when viewed in context of their history of climate denial.

The Marcus Foundation, which is both chaired and named after Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to climate deniers. Though Marcus no longer works for the Home Depot, his funding of climate denial helps ensure that companies like Home Depot turn a profit off of those affected by climate change’s increasing extreme weather disasters. And because extreme weather events impact low- and middle-income individuals the most, young people will continue to be pushed over the edge of economic instability so that CEOs like Bernie Marcus can make an extra dollar.

Conclusion

Today’s young people have to contend with the after-effects of entering the job market during one of the worst economic recessions in modern history, and the quickening and financially devastating effects of climate change. Together, these phenomena leave young people facing more frequent and more intense extreme weather disasters while lacking the economic stability to weather the storm. Meanwhile some corporations—from payday lenders to used car dealerships, price gougers, and climate change deniers—are raking in the profits. As extreme weather disasters become even more normal, we must take action to ensure that corporate profit does not come at the expense of young people’s economic stability.

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