Flood Fight: Classification Claims, Flood Insurance, and the American Welfare State

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
105 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Rebecca Elliott, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Drawing on archival, interview, ethnographic, and documentary data, this paper provides an account of political contestation surrounding reforms to the massively indebted U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) from 2011-2014. Like other struggles over the design of insurance systems, particularly those used as a means of welfare state governance, at stake in these reforms was the balance of collective and individual responsibility for bearing flood risk—an issue that took on added urgency with the expectation of worsening risks due to climate change. How much risk would the state and taxpayers support, and how much would be left to individual floodplain property owners? I argue that we can best understand this episode by bringing the literature on the welfare state and neoliberalism into dialogue with the sociological literature on classification. In this case, contests over the distribution of risk and responsibility were simultaneously contests about classification. The debate over flood insurance reform turned on two issues related to how the state classifies risk: 1) the efficacy of actuarial risk classification, and 2) the fairness of actuarial risk classification. Consistent with a more general climate of neoliberal policymaking, the first set of reforms to the NFIP further individualized risk and responsibility. Changes to risk classification and their relationship to the price of flood insurance enhanced the demands on property owners to self-inform about and respond to their personal allocation of flood risk. Following nationwide backlash to Biggert-Waters, however, subsequent legislation and federal initiatives then more precisely circumscribed this risk shift: the state would now classify more "accurately" those who "truly need" state support. This introduced need-based criteria into U.S. federal disaster programs in new ways. I show that classification struggles not only redrew the boundaries around flood zones and risk pools, but also redrew the boundaries of the state.