Poverty and Natural Disasters: Exploring the Connections

In this lesson students will identify and explore connections between poverty and natural disasters. 
Grade Level


Activities meet the following objectives:

  • understand that poverty exacerbates the suffering that natural disasters cause;
  • see the connections between poverty in Haiti and poverty in the United States;
  • plan and participate in a service learning project to address poverty.
Essential Questions
  • How does poverty affect the impact of natural disasters?
  • How does poverty differ from country to country?
  • How can poverty be eradicated?
  • Handout 1: United Nations Definition of Poverty
  • Handout 2: Data About Poverty in the United States and Haiti
  • Handout 3: Why Poverty Affects the Impact of Earthquakes



poverty [ ˈpävərtē ] (noun) The United Nations defines people in poverty as those who live on less than $2 a day. United States guidelines for 2009 define poverty as a family of four living on $22,050 or less per year (or less than $62 per day). That amount is updated every year, and government agencies use it to determine eligibility for certain government programs.

extreme poverty [ ikˈstrēm ˈpävərtē ] (noun) The United Nations defines people in extreme poverty as those living on less than $1 a day.

areas of concentrated poverty  [ˈe(ə)rēəs əv ˈkänsənˌtrātid ˈpävərtē ] (noun) Areas in the United States where 40 percent or more of the population lives in poverty.



In 1989 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck San Francisco. Sixty-three people died. This year, a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. A month after the disaster the Haitian government estimates that more than 200,000 people died. Why the huge difference? In this lesson students will answer that question as they identify and explore connections between poverty and natural disasters. 



1. This lesson is about the earthquake in Haiti, and about poverty.

a. The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti measured 7.0 on the scale that’s used to measure earthquakes. A 7.0 earthquake is very severe. The United States had a 7.1 earthquake in San Francisco in 1989. Estimates are that 200,000 people died in the Haiti earthquake. In San Francisco, 63 people died. In this lesson, you’re going to explore one factor behind such a big difference in the death tolls from two earthquakes that were about the same magnitude.

b. Poverty is the condition of not having enough of the things you need to live. What are some of those things? Call them out, and have a volunteer write them on the board. When you’ve got a list, go back over it and think about the difference between something you need, like food, and something you want, like a cell phone. Cross out everything on the list that’s a want, so your final list is just needs.

c. In this lesson you’re going to look at the connections between earthquakes and poverty. Formulate a hypothesis: How do you think earthquakes and poverty are connected? Write down your hypothesis in a notebook so you can go back later and see if you were right.

2. To discover the connection between the earthquake and poverty, you’re going to compare the effects of the 2010 Haitian earthquake with the effects of a 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, which was about the same strength. You’re going to need to get some information about poverty in the two places. In groups, read the definition of poverty on Handout 1: United Nations Definition of Poverty. Working with your group, complete the activity on the handout to help you think about the kinds of data that would inform you about poverty.

3. Now look at Handout 2: Data About Poverty in the United States and Haiti, and follow the instructions there.

4. Now that you know how poverty and the earthquake death tolls are related, think about why they are related. Complete Handout 3: Why Poverty Affects the Impact of Earthquakes.

5. How can you use what you’ve learned about poverty and natural disasters? As a class, identify some actions you might be able to take to address poverty. If you want to act locally, for example, you could organize a fund-raising activity to support a local homeless shelter or to send money to help Haiti’s earthquake survivors. Or maybe you want to do a project where you teach people at your school and in your community what you’ve learned about how poverty makes the effects of natural disasters worse. In groups or as a class, put together a step-by-step action plan and complete it. When you’re done, reflect on the activity. Discuss how what you learned in this lesson shaped your class project, and how your project addressed a problem or problems you identified in your studies.


Extension Activity


1. There are places in the United States where many people live in poverty. Just as the earthquake in Haiti caused much more damage than a similar earthquake in San Francisco, other natural disasters cause more damage in impoverished communities in the United States than they do in wealthier U.S. communities. Read about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, a city with areas of concentrated poverty. Discuss how the information in this article relates to what you’ve discovered about Haiti.

2. In service learning activities, you do what you can do to improve the world. But the article about Hurricane Katrina opens the door for you to think about larger-scale political and economic changes. Working with your group, and using the Katrina article as a starting point, do some research to find out what some larger-scale changes would involve. Discuss your findings with the class, and what you might be able to do to help bring about some of the changes you have identified.


Political Cartoon

Cartoons are a kind of visual shorthand. Cartoonists draw pictures to make a point. This cartoon answers the same question you answered in this lesson: How are poverty and the effects of natural disasters connected? What answer does the cartoon give? Make your own cartoon based on what you have learned in this lesson. Share it with the class.

Reprinted with permission. Teachers may purchase individual cartoons for other lesson plans at PoliticalCartoons.com.