How Disasters Impact Ambition

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 10:27 am
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It's just incredible, the series of natural disasters we've been through, isn't it? We saw deadly fires here in California, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida. Across the U.S., people are rebuilding homes and businesses and schools. But let's talk about a different kind of damage, to people's sense that they can plan for the future. A study suggests, after disasters, a kind of psychic shock can be even more lasting. Here's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Marcia Bauer owns a feed and gear store serving cattle ranchers around the rural Texas town of Winnie. Before Hurricane Harvey hit this summer, she was investing a lot of money to attract more customers, getting involved in horse competitions, agricultural festivals...

MARCIA BAUER: And then I just had an electronic sign installed to help boost my business. It hadn't been up a month before the hurricane hit.

AIZENMAN: Bauer's business ground to a halt, but she thinks eventually things will pick up. For her, long term, the biggest casualty could be her ambition for her business. Bauer says from now on her focus will probably just be on building up emergency reserves.

BAUER: Like I told my husband, I said I just - I've given up on setting goals because you take one step forward, three steps backwards.

AIZENMAN: A new study suggests this kind of reaction by people, scaling back their aspirations and the economic choices they make as a result, could be a common effect of natural disasters. The evidence comes from Pakistan, which in 2010 went through a sort of Harvey of its own.

KATRINA KOSEC: There was a massive flood that was larger than any flood the country had seen in about 80 years.

AIZENMAN: Katrina Kosec is an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute and one of the authors of the study.

KOSEC: You literally had a fifth of the country under water.

AIZENMAN: And as with so many of the recent disasters in the U.S., the floods in Pakistan felt out of the blue.

KOSEC: Communities got a shock that they couldn't have anticipated.

AIZENMAN: A year and a half after the flood, Kosec and her collaborator surveyed about a thousand households in those communities and a virtually identical group of households that had not gone through the flood.

KOSEC: So you're comparing individuals with the same amount of income, the same amount of assets that might fuel their future hopes and dreams.

AIZENMAN: And they asked them about those hopes and dreams. How much annual income do they eventually hope to make? How many years of schooling do they want for their kids? The results, recently published in the journal World Development, the flood survivors had much lower aspirations. What's more, says Kosec...

KOSEC: A fatalism really took hold.

AIZENMAN: The flood survivors were less likely to do things that might expand their businesses, like taking loans. But the study also found that there's something that can counter the fatalism, and here's how this applies to the U.S.

KOSEC: All of the negative effects of the floods in Pakistan on people's aspirations are coming from those communities in which the government did not come in to support people.

AIZENMAN: People who had the cushion of even just a little government aid, they held on to their aspirations. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.