Climate Change and Inequality: Cultivating Resiliency in State and Federal Child Welfare Programs and Policies: HPC Fellow, Lindsay Harrington, SOS Children's Villages USA

Lindsay Harrington is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow working at SOS Children's Villages USA. At SOS Lindsay conducted an analysis of service gaps in the United States child welfare system. With a Master's degree specializing in Policy from Columbia University, Lindsay is a Children's Rights advocate with a strong interest in supporting efforts for the improved quality of governance and effective policy solutions to global humanitarian and development challenges. Read on to learn about her placement as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow.

Society's most vulnerable individuals and groups are frequently found at the intersections of multiple and overlapping identities. In America, the degree and severity of oppression that people and communities experience is often determined by cumulative factors of identity such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, ethnicity, citizenship status or disability. When generating solutions to societal problems, governments and organizations need to take into account all aspects of identity, as well as the systems that produce and perpetuate oppression.

As this pertains to United States child welfare, state and federal service providers often fail to adequately address the systemic and structural barriers that hold children and families back from accessing social and economic justice. Throughout my time as the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with SOS Children's Villages in Washington, D.C., I conducted a nationwide assessment of the United States child welfare system. During this process, I observed how children and families at the intersections of poverty and climate change were being excluded from the dialogue. While the United States has demonstrated concerted efforts to cultivate innovations in child welfare, namely in regard to prevention and early intervention modalities among families and children at high risk of entering the system, a vicious cycle is occurring, and it lacks our collective attention.

Climate change fuels poverty and exacerbates inequalities. Every year, the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events drives people from their homes, separates families, and threatens access to economic opportunity. When natural disasters occur, they disproportionately harm low income communities who have fewer resources and receive less support from the financial system and social safety nets. Without these reinforcements, poor people and communities have a harder time preventing, coping and adapting to climate change. All of these factors contribute to an already overburdened child welfare system.

Despite the unprecedented economic growth and technological advances that have characterized the last decade, the U.S. Census Bureau's Income and Poverty Report of 2018 measured that 38.1 million people still live in poverty. In 2018, the nation witnessed the greatest gap between rich and poor households it has seen in the last 50 years and  roughly 21% of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. Currently, the nonelderly adult poverty rate for women is 14% compared to 10% of men. Meanwhile, the African American poverty rate is 22%, as opposed to 9% white. As the national economy surges ahead, the current administration has continued to make budget cuts to low income assistance programs.

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, low income communities are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change because they already have higher rates of adverse health conditions, are more exposed to environmental hazards, and take longer to recover from natural disasters. As such, climate related shocks are known to perpetuate cycles of inequality and are a huge barrier to eliminating poverty. Even with immediate collective action, it is likely that we will continue to experience intensified natural events and America's underlying inequalities will be further exposed. To see this in action, we can observe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  

2005 revealed an urgent need to evaluate the impacts of disasters on the U.S. child welfare system after more than 5,000 children were reported missing following the hurricane and many foster children and families were heavily burdened during and after the storm. At the time of the hurricane, about 2,000 foster children lived in its path. By two weeks after the storm, state workers had lost track of an estimated 25% of these children and after a month, 158 remained unaccounted for.

Aside from this, Katrina aggravated preexisting inequalities. About one of every three people who lived in the areas hit hardest by the hurricane were African American. By 2010, after the hurricane displaced up to one million people in the Gulf region, the white population of New Orleans had dropped by only 24,000 while the black population dropped by 118,000. It is probable that this disparity is a consequence of decades of inequality after historically white neighborhoods were built on high ground and black neighborhoods were segregated and contained within low-laying regions of the city.

Moreover, as recent evidence has suggested, natural disasters tend to have a disproportionate impact on women.  In a qualitative report conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, low income black women faced added obstacles in returning to New Orleans post Katrina due to poor city planning and federal housing policy. As these women were met with distinct challenges, there is ample evidence to suggest that the Gulf region's overall recovery process could have been strengthened through the support of enhanced measures to bolster gender equality. International assistance in development contexts has substantiated claims that increasing social and economic opportunities and political representation for women has ripple effects on health, education, and socio-economic outcomes throughout society. Unfortunately, concentrated government efforts to empower and build capacity among post Katrina women lacked targeted action. Furthermore, data collection in the wake of the disaster did not provide information fully disaggregated by gender or race and there is difficulty assessing the full scale of Katrina's impact on women, particularly women of color.

After thousands were displaced, the overall population of New Orleans eventually rebounded. However, some predominately black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, which was 98% black, never recovered. Post Katrina, only 37% of its residents returned. Today, African Americans comprise just 32% of Louisiana's total population although black children account for 42% of all children living in out-of-home foster care. In part, this could be due to higher rates of poverty among black communities leading to less resilience. After black communities received less support from social safety nets, they took longer to recover and it is likely that children and families suffered as a result. Unfortunately, in order to make these determinations, more data is needed and much information is still unknown about the long-term impact on child welfare.  

Katrina is just one example of how climate catastrophes can have long and far reaching consequences that strain systems, perpetuate cycles and intensify inequalities. As such, governments, as well as civil society organizations, must broadly recognize the risks posed by climate change and adopt policies designed to limit the scale of its impact and adapt to its challenges. Making these strategic decisions under uncertainty about the future requires innovative thought, careful evaluation and dynamic planning. Establishing a flexible framework, careful research, close monitoring of changes and evaluating of outcomes is essential. Simultaneously incorporating crosscutting measures to reduce poverty and inequality will support communities to become more resilient and diminish future vulnerabilities to climate shocks.

As the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow, I enjoyed the opportunity to analyze these challenges and strengthen SOS Children's Villages' ability to cultivate organizational dexterity through adaptable policies and robust strategies. Ultimately, by integrating these critical measures within SOS-USA's pipeline of support, the organization may be able to disrupt cycles of poverty and inequality in America and achieve even better child welfare outcomes.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The  Hilton Prize Coalition  is an independent alliance of the winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the  Fellows Program, the  Collaborative Models Program  and the  Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat,  Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit, or Follow  the Hilton Prize Coalition on  Twitter and LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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