In the United States, law condemns poor people to their fates in states. Where Americans live continues to dictate whether they can access cash, food, and medical assistance. What’s more, immigrants, territorial residents, and tribal members encounter deteriorated corners of the American welfare state. Nonetheless, despite repeated retrenchment efforts, this patchwork of programs has proven remarkably resilient. Yet, the ability of the United States to meet its people’s most basic needs now faces an unprecedented challenge: climate change. As extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes become more frequent and more intense, these climate-fueled disasters will displace and impoverish more people. How can the United States adapt its welfare programs to assist Americans in the face of this threat?
This Article maps that uncharted territory. It contextualizes the climate crisis in our scholarly understanding of the American welfare state. It then canvasses the myriad disaster provisions in each major welfare program. Equipped with an understanding of the status quo, the Article proceeds to evaluate how federal law has fared, amid the recent spate of fires and floods. The Article attends to the role of Congress, weakened as it is by increased polarization and diminished capacity, and how the resulting delays and distortions in emergency relief have hampered the governmental response. The Article then brings state and local government into focus, and in doing so, demonstrates how assistance often excludes the most vulnerable Americans. The Article also extracts lessons from the pandemic response for climate adaptation of public benefits. The Article concludes with an agenda for how to adapt welfare programs to meet the climate crisis. That agenda starts and ends with the federal government, but it includes policies states, territories, and tribes could implement if Congress and federal agencies do nothing or not enough. The Article repurposes what we know about how the American welfare state functions now to inform what federal, state, and local government should do next.
California Law Review, Forthcoming