Seven of 10 riskiest places are in California and Houston, Huntsville, Alabama and Oklahoma City 

HERNDON, Va., July 10, 2024 — One of the privileges the wealthiest Americans enjoy is living wherever they want. But new research published in Risk Analysis suggests they should be cautious when choosing their Shangri-La.  

In their nationwide analysis, Rutgers University geographers Michael Greenberg and Dona Schneider compared the concentration of hazards and associated risks impacting the richest and poorest counties and the richest and poorest municipalities in all 50 states (200 locations).  

When they compared their results to the national averages for each risk, they found that residents of America’s wealthiest communities face higher economic consequences from natural hazard events (like hurricanes and drought) and exposure to air pollution compared to the poorest, mostly rural communities. People living in the lowest-income municipalities have lower economic consequences from natural hazards, but at least 50 percent higher suicide rates, homicide rates, and firearm fatalities compared to the national average. 

The purpose of the study, says Greenberg, was to illustrate that “relationships between income and the geography of hazards and risks are not that simple. Low-income areas are burdened by many hazards, yet even the most affluent suburban residents cannot escape the hazards of living near industrial and waste management facilities.”  

One of the metrics included in the analysis was the National Risk Index — a FEMA tool that shows which communities are most at risk of specific natural hazards. For the wealthiest communities included in the study, the data revealed that seven of the 10 highest natural hazard risk places are in California. The three others are Houston, Texas; Huntsville, Alabama; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (All three are subject to earthquakes, fires, floods, and tornados). “The wealthiest people often choose to live in places that are dangerous due to natural hazards,” says Greenberg. One example is coastal southern California, where some of the richest neighborhoods are susceptible to drought, wildfires, flooding, and landslides.  

A hazard is something that has the potential to harm humans or the environment. Risk (expressed as a probability) is the likelihood of a hazard causing harm. In addition to natural hazards, other risk metrics included in the analysis are anthropogenic hazards like air pollution and toxic waste sites; health-related risks like homicide and suicide rates, low life expectancy, and percentage of smokers; and social assets like food security and access to exercise and health care.  

Here are some of the study’s most significant findings… 

People living in the highest-income communities: 

  • are more likely to experience and face higher economic losses from natural hazards (such as hurricanes, drought, and tornados) because they have more assets to lose.  
  • reside in more densely populated urban-suburban areas and are more likely to live near higher concentrations of anthropogenic hazards (hazardous waste and Superfund sites, heavy traffic arteries, and air pollution). 
  • have better access to high-quality medical care, the best educational opportunities and entertainment venues, as well as rapid communication and other desirable assets. 

People living in the lowest-income communities: 

  • have fewer assets to lose but have a much more limited response capacity in the event of a disaster. 
  • have lower exposure to anthropogenic hazards like dense motor traffic, air pollution, and hazardous waste sites than the nationwide averages (for municipalities). They are mostly in rural locations and have a lower exposure to dense motor traffic and other hazards associated with urban life compared to high-income communities. 
  • have much higher social vulnerability and are more likely to struggle to secure access to information, as well as the expertise and services that protect them from risks. 
  • have at least 50 percent higher suicide and homicide rates, and other firearm fatalities, as well as percentage of current smokers in their populations compared to the national average. 
  • are disproportionately less likely to have ready access to health services (like primary care doctors), suffering worse outcomes for morbidity and mortality — with lower life expectancy rates 
  • are at a nearly 40 percent higher risk for lack of educational achievement compared to the highest-income counties (measured by rates of high-school graduation). 

How to Learn About Where You Live 

Greenberg points out that if people want to understand more about their community’s risks, they can turn to the same free databases used in the study – for example, the EPA’s EJScreen. There, users can find demographic, social, economic, and air quality information, as well as the location of potential industrial and waste management hazards for their communities. “You can put a circle around your house and find out all kinds of information,” says Greenberg. “Why not educate yourself?” 

Demographics of Richest vs. Poorest 

To highlight the geographic effects of income disparity, the study includes a brief demographic comparison of these richest and poorest municipalities in four states: California (Atherton vs. Mecca), North Carolina (Marvin vs. Enfield), New York (Scarsdale vs. New Square), and Ohio (Indian Hill and East Cleveland). As an example, affluent Marvin and impoverished Enfield are located 260 miles apart. Marvin is a suburb of Charlotte while Enfield borders South Carolina. Marvin’s population is over 85 percent non Hispanic white while Enfield’s is 85 percent African American. The public school system in Marvin is rated A+ while Enfield’s is rated D. “Marvin represents growing affluence and Enfield represents an overlooked poor African American community,” says Greenberg.     

He and Schneider hope their risk analysis will provide a useful perspective to government officials choosing where to allocate funds available via the Justice40 program and others meant to provide resources to America’s poorest and most underserved communities.  


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