Inequality in Agency Responsiveness: Evidence from Salient Wildfire Events

This working paper examines the efforts federal agencies undertake in the aftermath of a fire. It finds that agencies increase fuel management only near affected communities with high socioeconomic status.



Dec. 16, 2020


Working Paper

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1 minute


Government agencies may be an additional source of unequal representation beyond those stemming from the differential responsiveness of elected officials. In this paper, we use plausibly exogenous focusing events, which raise public demands for government provision of local public goods, to examine whether there is evidence for unequal responsiveness in agency decision-making. Using the empirical case of wildfire risk management in the western United States, we find that when some communities experience nearby wildfire events, it raises the salience of wildfire risk and leads agencies to place a greater number of wildfire risk reduction projects nearby, even when wildfire risk has already been reduced. Importantly, this effect predominates among high socioeconomic status communities. We find that nearby fires increase rates of fuels treatment particularly among higher-income, more-educated, and whiter communities. The formal model and empirical evidence show that public agencies perpetuate inequality, via the costs of lobbying and the costs of lack of responsiveness by agencies, which varies by demographics.

Key Findings

  • Nearby fires increase the rates of fuel treatment in communities with a relatively high percentage of high-income, well-educated, and white residents. Fuel treatments reduce fire intensity and lessen damage from future fires.
  • Prior research shows that communities with more white, non-Hispanic residents are better able to mobilize, which suggests that additional resources provided by government agencies may be at least partially a function of community mobilization, not just biased decisionmakers.


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