Living in wealthy communities might not be safer, new study reveals

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Living in America’s wealthiest communities may not offer the safety you might expect.

Research from Rutgers University, published in Risk Analysis, suggests that even the richest Americans need to be careful when choosing their dream homes.

Geographers Michael Greenberg and Dona Schneider studied 200 locations across all 50 states, comparing hazards and risks in the richest and poorest counties and municipalities.

They discovered that people in wealthy areas face higher economic losses from natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts and more exposure to air pollution.

In contrast, those in the poorest areas face higher rates of suicide, homicide, and firearm fatalities.

Greenberg explains, “The relationship between income and risk isn’t simple. Low-income areas face many hazards, but even the wealthiest residents can’t escape dangers from industrial and waste management facilities.”

The study used the National Risk Index, a FEMA tool that identifies communities most at risk from natural hazards.

It found that seven of the ten highest-risk places are in California, with others in Houston, Texas; Huntsville, Alabama; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. These areas are prone to earthquakes, fires, floods, and tornadoes.

Greenberg noted, “Wealthy people often choose to live in places with natural hazards, like coastal southern California, where there are risks of drought, wildfires, flooding, and landslides.”

A hazard is something that can harm people or the environment, and risk is the probability of that harm occurring.

The study also looked at other risks like air pollution, toxic waste sites, health issues (such as suicide and homicide rates), and access to social resources like food and healthcare.

Key findings from the study include:

For high-income communities:

  • More likely to face economic losses from natural disasters because they have more assets.
  • Higher exposure to industrial hazards like waste sites and heavy traffic.
  • Better access to medical care, education, entertainment, and communication.

For low-income communities:

  • Fewer assets to lose but limited ability to respond to disasters.
  • Lower exposure to urban hazards but higher social vulnerability.
  • Struggle with higher suicide, homicide, and firearm fatality rates.
  • Limited access to healthcare and lower life expectancy.
  • Higher risk of poor educational outcomes.

To understand more about your community’s risks, Greenberg suggests using free databases like the EPA’s EJScreen, which provides information on demographics, social and economic factors, air quality, and industrial hazards.

The study also compares the richest and poorest areas in four states. For example, in North Carolina, wealthy Marvin has an A+ rated school system and a population over 85% non-Hispanic white, while poor Enfield has a D-rated school system and a population 85% African American.

Greenberg and Schneider hope their research will help government officials decide where to allocate resources to support America’s poorest and most underserved communities.