Mapping Global Food Insecurity (Interactive Map)

Nearly 690 million people in the world are undernourished. Poor nutrition can cause a number of health complications including stunting—a condition where poor nutrition in-utero or in early childhood causes a child to be too short for their age. Stunting affected more than 140 million children under the age of 5 globally in 2019.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our new report on efforts to achieve global food security and improved nutrition around the world. The report also provides an interactive map showing how global food security assistance funds were disbursed throughout the world from 2014-2018.

What causes global food insecurity?

Conflict, climate variability, and economic downturns are just some of the factors that may contribute to global levels of food insecurity. For example, climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts, and tropical storms have increased food insecurity by undermining food production.

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to further exacerbate global hunger. The pandemic has increased the risk of poverty and therefore hunger and malnutrition for families around the world. The UN estimates that 83 million to 132 million people could become undernourished in 2020 due to the pandemic.

How is the world addressing global food insecurity?

From 2014 through 2018, the United States and other international donors spent an estimated $75 billion to combat global food insecurity. The United States accounted for more than $22 billion of this total. Other major bilateral or country donors included Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, France, and the United Arab Emirates.

Figure: Estimated Bilateral Disbursements for Global Food Security Assistance, 2014 through 2018

Multilateral donors (including international organizations and institutions with government membership) such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, World Food Program, and Food and Agriculture Organization provided more than $13 billion of this assistance from 2014 through 2018.

Which sectors and recipients have received global food security assistance?

Donors have provided funding to 8 sectors that directly support global food security, including agriculture, agro-industries, nutrition, developmental food security assistance, emergency food assistance, fishing, school feeding, and food security and safety management.

For example, donors have spent an estimated $37 billion in agriculture assistance, such as supplying seeds and conducting land surveys, and about $5 billion on nutrition activities, which include, for example, managing acute malnutrition.

We developed an interactive map that shows how global food security assistance funds from donors around the world were disbursed from 2014-2018. The figure below demonstrates how the graphic works. Access the complete interactive graphic at or by clicking on the below image.

As the largest bilateral donor of this assistance, the United States uses various programs to administer its food assistance. These programs have supported emergencies, for example, by providing food assistance to populations living in or displaced from conflicts like those in Syria and South Sudan. The United States has also supported nonemergency development activities with programs related to agriculture and water, sanitation, and hygiene, among others.

Warehouse Workers Packaging Food Aid for Beneficiaries in Haiti

Want to learn more about our work on global food security? Check out our key issues page on International Food Assistance.

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Operation Warp Speed—Federal Efforts to Accelerate COVID-19 Vaccine and Therapeutic Development

Note: This blog was updated on December 7 to clarify some references to the distribution and licensing aspects of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Developing a vaccine can take 10 years or longer. However, as COVID-19 cases rapidly rose during the early stages of the pandemic, and with no vaccines or therapeutics available at that point to prevent or treat COVID-19, the federal government partnered with private industry to accelerate the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19.  

Today’s WatchBlog explores our new report on the status of this effort. You can also tune in to our new podcast with GAO health care experts Mary Denigan-Macauley and Alyssa Hundrup to learn more:

Operation Warp Speed

The federal government created Operation Warp Speed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Operation Warp Speed, vaccine developers are starting to manufacture their COVID-19 vaccines before testing has been completed. Consequently, Operation Warp Speed intends to be ready to distribute any vaccine as soon as it is authorized or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Under Operation Warp Speed, the federal government has publicly announced financial support for the development and manufacturing of six COVID-19 vaccine candidates totaling more than $10 billion in obligations. Its goal is to produce 300 million doses of a vaccine, with initial doses available in January 2021.

Many of Operation Warp Speed’s vaccine candidates are in the final stage of the development process—i.e., conducting large-scale clinical trials.

However, there are important challenges to consider. For example, ramping up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines depends on the manufacturing supply chain. Before the pandemic began, most manufacturing resources were being used for other vaccines, and private industry representatives working on COVID-19 vaccines have told us they’ve had trouble obtaining these resources.

Emergency Use Authorizations

The federal government can issue emergency use authorizations, which temporarily allow the use of unapproved products—such as vaccines or therapeutics—or unapproved uses of approved products during emergencies, such as COVID-19. So far, it has issued 4 of these “EUAs.” For example, remdesivir—a drug previously developed to treat Ebola—has been authorized to treat COVID-19 in certain patients.

These authorizations can provide the federal government with flexibility and help make treatments available more quickly during an emergency, but an EUA allows for less certainty of effectiveness than is required to approve therapeutics or license vaccines. FDA has revoked emergency authorizations for some drugs, namely chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, because they later found they were not effective at treating COVID-19.

Additionally, making a therapeutic or vaccine widely available through emergency use authorization could negatively affect participation in further clinical trials. Such trials, or studies of the drug’s effectiveness and safety in humans, are necessary to support any eventual approval. In addition, if a drug originally used to treat a different disease is used to treat COVID-19, it can result in a shortage of that drug, potentially impacting patients who need it for the original use. 

Moving forward

As the federal government moves forward in its efforts to support the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19, it’s important for the FDA to be transparent about the safety and effectiveness data it uses when deciding whether to authorize a vaccine or therapeutic.

However, we’ve found that FDA has not uniformly disclosed information about its decisions on COVID-19 therapeutics. This lack of transparency could erode the public’s trust in FDA’s decisions about COVID-19 vaccines or therapeutics.

Want to know more? Check out our new report.

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GAO’s Scorecard—How we saved the federal government $77.6 billion this year

GAO audits federal programs and spending to ensure that taxpayer dollars are protected and that programs operate effectively and efficiently. While we share our findings with Congress and the public through hundreds of reports and testimonies issued throughout the year, we also publish an annual report summarizing that year’s efforts to improve federal performance and accountability.

So, what did we find during our audits this year?

In our new Performance and Accountability Report, we highlight the $77.6 billion we saved in federal spending. That’s $114 dollars for every dollar Congress invests in us!

Today’s WatchBlog explores some of the ways we have helped save money and other ways we helped improve government operations, all in our FY2020  Performance and Accountability Report.

Saving money

We helped federal agencies save money in FY 2020 by making recommendations to increase oversight, reduce fraud, and make better use of federal funds.

For instance:

  • The construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX)—initially estimated to cost about $4.8 billion—was to be a key part of the Department of Energy’s approach to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. We recommended that DOE conduct more oversight reviews of such complex projects—which helped DOE to detect that the project would cost an extra $3 billion. DOE identified a less costly alternative and terminated the MOX project, saving about $13 billion.
  • States may test new approaches for delivering Medicaid services—with the approval of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)— but these projects must be budget-neutral. We’ve reported that HHS has allowed states to use questionable methods that resulted in inflated demonstration spending limits and increased the federal government’s fiscal liability. In response, HHS issued a new policy to better ensure that these demonstration projects are budget-neutral—which reduced the government’s fiscal liability in 10 states by an estimated $29.4 billion.
  • Identity theft tax refund fraud is a threat to taxpayers and tax administration. We found that IRS could help address this by matching wage information that employers report on the W-2 tax form to individuals’ tax returns before issuing refunds. However, employers’ wage data were not available until months after IRS issued most refunds. In response, Congress advanced the deadline for employers to file W-2s—which helped IRS prevent about $906.7 million in fraudulent payments.

Improving federal operations

We also reported on other benefits resulting from our work—i.e., benefits that can’t be measured in dollars but led to improvements in federal programs and operations. We helped federal agencies make 1,332 of these improvements in FY 2020.

For example:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees compliance with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or “drones”) regulations, including those prohibiting small UAS from endangering lives and property. However, we reported in 2019 that FAA did not consistently communicate to law enforcement partners on their expected role in UAS safety. FAA also had not determined what data it needed to assess its efforts. We made recommendations to improve FAA’s small UAS oversight. FAA has taken some steps in response, such as improving communication with law enforcement partners. This will better inform law enforcement about what information to share with FAA on unsafe UAS operations.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended over 850,000 noncitizens along the southwest border in FY 2019. CBP is required to track any family separations, but we found that these separations were not always accurately tracked. We also made a number of recommendations to improve CBP’s oversight of funds, medical care, and the reporting of deaths. In response, CBP plans to improve its guidance for processing family separations, and develop oversight mechanisms for medical care.
  • We’ve reported that inadequate oversight practices at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) resulted in the agency not reporting medical providers with serious quality and safety concerns to the National Provider Data Bank or state licensing boards. In response, VHA implemented a new tool to ensure that provider concerns are appropriately reported in a timely manner.

Assisting Congress

Our legislative impact was also significant. We received 550 requests for work from 90% of Congress’s standing committees in FY 2020. We issued 586 reports and made 1,459 new recommendations. We were also asked to testify 59 times on topics including COVID-19, disaster preparedness, the 2020 U.S. Census, and the nation’s fiscal health.

Additionally, Congress enacted the CARES Act in 2020, which includes provisions for GAO to monitor the nation’s pandemic response and recovery, track how funds are spent, and report bimonthly on our findings. We issued our first three bimonthly reports, and made 19 recommendations to federal agencies to enhance the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These included:

  • Addressing medical supply shortages and improving the medical supply chain
  • Improving data collection on COVID-19 to better understand health outcomes
  • Improving outreach to eligible recipients of economic impact payments

To learn more about our accomplishments, check out our FY 2020 Performance and Accountability Report.

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The Risks of Lead Paint and How Lead is Detected in Blood

Lead exposure poses significant health risks—particularly to children whose growing bodies absorb more lead than adults. In recognition of Lead Poisoning Awareness Week, the WatchBlog is highlighting the dangers of lead poisoning.

On Tuesday, we looked at the risk that lead in water poses to children at their schools and child care centers. The most common source of lead exposure for children, however, actually comes from lead paint hazards in homes and buildings (including schools) built before 1978—the year the government restricted lead-based paint sales.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our work on lead-based paint and how elevated lead levels in blood can be detected in those who have been exposed to it.

Lead paint in schools

In schools, lead dust usually comes from lead-based paint that’s disturbed during renovations, deteriorating paint, and lead-contaminated soil.

In a 2019 report, we surveyed schools about how they’ve dealt with lead paint. We found that about 12% of school districts nationwide inspected for lead-based paint in 2016-2017. About half of those districts found lead-based paint, and all of them took action to reduce or eliminate it or had plans to do so.

Lead paint in homes

In homes, infants and young children are particularly at risk of lead exposure because they frequently crawl on the floor and more often ingest nonfood items.

For a 2018 report, we reviewed the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to reduce lead exposure in housing, including its lead-reduction grants to state and local jurisdictions. From 2013-2017, HUD awarded over $500 million in these grants—71% of which went to locations in the Northeast and Midwest, which are known to have a high prevalence of lead paint hazards.

We found that HUD could improve its processes for identifying high risk areas for lead paint hazards and recommended, among other things, that it strengthen its oversight of public housing authorities’ compliance with lead paint regulations. In November 2019, we updated these recommendations in a statement for the record to Congress.

Lead safety in your home

If you think your home has lead-based paint, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a number of steps you can take to protect your family from lead hazards, including:

  • Keep painted surfaces in good condition to minimize deterioration
  • Clean floors, window sills, and other surfaces where lead dust can collect regularly
  • Talk to your landlord about fixing surfaces with peeling or chipping paint if you rent
  • Hire only EPA- or state-approved Lead-Safe certified renovation firms when renovating, repairing, or repainting if you own
  • Consult your healthcare provider about testing your children for lead exposure. Your pediatrician can conduct a simple blood test.

In January, EPA issued a new brochure about protecting your family from lead at home. Click here to find out more.

Screening for elevated lead levels in young Medicaid beneficiaries

Blood lead screenings are important for identifying children with elevated blood lead levels, as lead exposure can harm and affect nearly every system of the body and cause developmental delays.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a simple blood test is the best readily available way to measure for lead exposure. But, we found that data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on blood lead screenings is incomplete and inaccurate for children enrolled in Medicaid—which provides health care for low-income and medically needy people. This could mean that the number of children not receiving these potentially lifesaving screenings may be higher. And since no one knows how many young children enrolled in Medicaid were actually screened, we recommended improving the collection of such data.

Want to know more about this issue and other health issues facing children? Check out our Children’s Health and Safety page.

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Protecting Children from Lead Exposure in Schools and Child Care Facilities

Exposure to lead—like that found in contaminated water—can result in significant health problems. Children are particularly at risk because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults. Negative health effects include anemia, kidney and brain damage, as well as learning disabilities and decreased growth.

In recognition of Lead Poisoning Awareness Week, today’s WatchBlog looks at our work on lead contamination in facilities where children spend a lot of time—such as child care centers and public schools.

You can also tune into our recent podcast about lead in child care centers to learn more.

Lead in child care facility drinking water

Many young children spend significant time in child care settings. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), child care facilities, among other types of buildings, may have a higher potential for elevated lead levels in their drinking water because they are closed over weekends, holidays, and extended breaks during which lead in pipes and other fixtures can leach into the water. The prolonged shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic raise similar concerns.

We surveyed Head Start programs for our report that we issued last month. Head Start—one of the federal government’s largest early care and education programs and services—served approximately 900,000 infants and preschool children from low-income homes in 2019. We found that an estimated 43% of Head Start centers had not tested for lead in their drinking water from late-2018 through the end of 2019. And 31% of the centers did not know if they had tested at all.

In our report, we recommended that Head Start grantees be required to document that water provided to children has been tested for lead and that the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, collaborate to promote testing.

Lead in public schools drinking water

Children attending K-12 public schools may also be at risk of lead exposure from drinking water. Lead in school drinking water is a concern because it is a daily source of water for more than 50 million children enrolled in public schools. Similar to child care centers, the pattern of schools’ schedules—including time off during weekends, holidays, and extended breaks—can contribute to standing water in the schools’ plumbing systems, possibly allowing lead to leach into the water.

In our 2018 report, we found that an estimated 41% of school districts—serving 12 million students—had not tested school water for lead in 2016 or 2017. Similarly, another 16% of school districts didn’t know whether they had tested for lead at all. Of the school districts that did test for lead (43% of those we surveyed—representing some 35 million students), about 37% found elevated lead levels in their water. The figure below shows the estimated percent of school districts testing and those that found elevated lead levels.

There are no federal laws requiring lead testing of drinking water in schools that receive water from public water systems, even though these systems are regulated by the EPA. According to the EPA, at least 8 states had requirements for schools to test for lead in water, and an additional 13 states supported school districts’ voluntary efforts with funding or in-kind support for tests and remediation.

As a result of our 2018 report, the EPA has taken a variety of actions, such as communicating the importance of testing for lead in school drinking water and collaborating with the Department of Education. In 2019 and 2020, EPA awarded grants authorized by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act to states and the District of Columbia to help with voluntary testing in schools and child care facilities.

Check out our Key Issues page on Children’s Health and Safety to find out more about our work in these areas.

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Auditing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not uncommon. And as the nation’s largest employer, the federal government faces its own challenges when it comes to detecting and responding to workplace sexual harassment.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent reports and testimonies on workplace sexual harassment. You can also tune into our new podcast on workplace sexual harassment to learn more.

The magnitude and effects of workplace sexual harassment

Research shows that few workers who experience sexual harassment report it. Some studies estimate as few as 6% of such workers report the incident. While the most tangible effects of sexual harassment may be direct costs, such as legal fees and settlement amounts, there are also indirect costs and consequences, such as decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm to workers and employers.

Just how prevalent is workplace sexual harassment and what are its costs? It’s hard to say. According to our analysis, the few reliable nationwide estimates of sexual harassment’s prevalence vary substantially due to differences in methodology, including the survey’s question structure and time period used.

Moreover, the likeliness of experiencing workplace sexual harassment can vary based on an individual’s demographic characteristics—such as gender, race, and age—and whether the workplace is male- or female-dominated. For example, women, younger workers, and women in male-dominated workplaces were more likely to say they experienced harassment.

Similarly, we did not find any recent cost estimates of workplace sexual harassment, but identified four broad categories of costs: health, productivity, career, and reporting and legal costs. The figure below illustrates these costs.

Our new report highlights the lack of comprehensive, nationally-representative data on sexual harassment’s prevalence and costs, and discusses options and considerations from experts for collecting such data in the future.

It also finds that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on workplace situations like harassment— collects data on sexual harassment claims, but can’t fully analyze the problem. We recommended that EEOC assess the feasibility of analyzing additional data on retaliation charges, which can occur after an individual files a sexual harassment charge.

Protecting federal employees from sexual harassment in the workplace

We have issued a number of reports about sexual harassment in the federal workplace. In July, we testified before Congress about sexual harassment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although VA has policies to prevent and address harassment of employees, some are inconsistent and incomplete. For example, the person who oversees personnel functions, such as hiring and promotions, is the same person who oversees the complaint process. This could create a conflict of interest. Additionally, VA does not collect information on all complaints centrally, which makes it harder to direct resources for preventing and addressing sexual harassment where they are needed most. This also means VA does not have a sense of how prevalent sexual harassment is within the department. According to a federal survey, an estimated 22% of VA employees had experienced workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. We made several recommendations to VA on how it could better protect its employees.

Sexual harassment in STEM programs  

Research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays a critical role in enhancing the nation’s competitiveness. Sexual harassment—which is not only illegal and degrading—also makes it more difficult for women to engage in STEM fields and undermines the quality and fairness of our nation’s research.

In recent years, prominent STEM researchers have engaged in or been accused of sexual harassment, according to a number of media reports. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, including STEM research.

In a March report, we looked at the 5 agencies that provide most of the federal STEM research grants and found that while the number of complaints agencies received were low, the guidance for how employees could report sexual harassment incidents was limited. For example:

  • Although 4 of the 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints of sexual harassment within the past 5 years, 2 of those agencies lacked or had outdated guidance for how employees could file complaints.
  • Additionally, none of the 5 agencies we reviewed had goals or an overall plan to evaluate efforts to prevent sexual harassment.

We also testified before Congress in June 2019 about how these 5 agencies ensure funding is not awarded to those who have a history of sexual harassment. At that time, we said that while all 5 agencies had taken some steps to prevent sexual harassment, they also noted challenges with these efforts, such as the lack of information on sexual harassment cases. This could increase the risk of funding researchers with a history of past sexual harassment.

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Deconstructing Deepfakes—How do they work and what are the risks?

Last month, Microsoft introduced a new deepfake detection tool. Weeks ago, Intel launched another. As more and more companies follow suit and more concerns arise about the use of this technology, we take a look in today’s WatchBlog at how this technology works and the policy questions it raises.

What is a deepfake?

A deepfake is a video, photo, or audio recording that seems real but has been manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI).  The underlying technology can replace faces, manipulate facial expressions, synthesize faces, and synthesize speech. These tools are used most often to depict people saying or doing something they never said or did.

How do deepfakes work?

Deepfake videos commonly swap faces or manipulate facial expressions. The image below illustrates how this is done. In face swapping, the face on the left is placed on another person’s body. In facial manipulation, the expressions of the face on the left are imitated by the face on the right.

Face Swapping and Facial Manipulation

Deepfakes rely on artificial neural networks, which are computer systems that recognize patterns in data. Developing a deepfake photo or video typically involves feeding hundreds or thousands of images into the artificial neural network, “training” it to identify and reconstruct patterns—usually faces.

How can you spot a deepfake?

The figure below illustrates some of the ways you can identify a deepfake from the real thing. To learn more about how to identify a deepfake, and to learn about the underlying technology used, check out our recent Spotlight on this technology.

What are the benefits of these tools?

Voices and likenesses developed using deepfake technology can be used in movies to achieve a creative effect or maintain a cohesive story when the entertainers themselves are not available. For example, in the latest Star Wars movies, this technology was used to replace characters who had died or to show characters as they appeared in their youth. Retailers have also used this technology to allow customers to try on clothing virtually.

What risks do they pose?

In spite of such benign and legitimate applications like films and commerce, deepfakes are more commonly used for exploitation. Some studies have shown that much of deepfake content online is pornographic, and deepfake pornography disproportionately victimizes women.

There is also concern about potential growth in the use of deepfakes for disinformation. Deepfakes could be used to influence elections or incite civil unrest, or as a weapon of psychological warfare. They could also lead to disregard of legitimate evidence of wrongdoing and, more generally, undermine public trust.

What can be done to protect people?

As discussed above, researchers and internet companies, such as Microsoft and Intel, have experimented with several methods to detect deepfakes. These methods typically use AI to analyze videos for digital artifacts or details that deepfakes fail to imitate realistically, such as blinking or facial tics. But even with these interventions by tech companies, there are a number of policy questions about deepfakes that still need to be answered. For example:

  • What can be done to educate the public about deepfakes to protect them and help them identify real from fake?
  • What rights do individuals have to privacy when it comes to the use of deepfake technology?
  • What First Amendment protections do creators of deepfake videos, photos, and more have?

Deepfakes are powerful tools that can be used for exploitation and disinformation. With advances making them more difficult to detect, these technologies require a deeper look.

  • Questions about the content of this post? Contact Karen Howard at
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The Wave of Concerns Facing the National Flood Insurance Program

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to protect homeowners and alleviate taxpayers’ exposure to flood losses. However, the growing magnitude of major flood events, combined with attempts to keep homeowners’ policy rates affordable, threaten the program’s solvency and expose taxpayers to losses.

Finding common ground on flood insurance reform has been difficult.

On Sept. 30, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was reauthorized for another year, allowing it to continue offering flood coverage to America’s homeowners. However, much needed reform has yet to materialize, leaving the nation’s taxpayers exposed as the program continues to take on more debt.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at the nation’s flood insurance program, and what could be done to fix it.

How we got here

Congress created NFIP with 2 competing goals: keeping flood insurance affordable and keeping the program fiscally solvent. However, a historical focus on affordability has come at the expense of solvency.

In particular, Congress has required the program to charge discounted premium rates to many policyholders, even though these rates do not reflect the full risk of flood losses. This has led to a shortfall in revenue, and NFIP has not had sufficient funds to pay claims. Additionally, because Congress has not appropriated funding to pay for this shortfall, NFIP has borrowed from the Treasury (i.e., taxpayers) to cover it—about $36.5 billion since 2005. For these reasons, we placed NFIP on our High Risk List in 2006.

Efforts to mitigate flood risk

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers three grant programs that fund efforts to mitigate the flood risk of properties insured by NFIP. These programs funded $5.4 billion (adjusted for inflation) in projects from 1989 to 2018 to help states and localities mitigate more than 57,000 properties. While these efforts have reduced flood risk, NFIP’s debt has continued to grow because premium rates do not fully reflect the flood risk of its insured properties.

How we fix it

Our April 2017 report outlined a roadmap for comprehensive reform that could improve the program’s solvency and better protect Americans from flood risk. One of the main challenges with reform is trying to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide between affordability and solvency. We found that full-risk premium rates for all policies, with appropriated means-based subsidies, could help address this issue because:

  • Full-risk premium rates would remove subsidies from those who don’t need them—helping improve solvency—and more accurately signal the true flood risk to property owners.
  • Means-based subsidies would ensure that property owners who need help would get it.
  • Having Congress explicitly appropriate for the subsidies would make the true cost of the subsidy transparent to taxpayers.

While comprehensive NFIP reform should address other issues we’ve identified, such as encouraging more Americans to purchase flood insurance, focusing on the affordability/solvency trade-off could be an important first step to putting NFIP on a sustainable path, protecting both policyholders and taxpayers.

Want to learn more about our recent work on the National Flood Insurance Program? In June, we reported on FEMA’s efforts to purchase properties in areas prone to flooding in order to reduce the insurance program’s financial challenges. In May, we reported on how communities are implementing FEMA requirements on floodplain management and post-disaster rebuilding efforts.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alicia Puente Cackley at
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How does FEMA help people recover from major disasters?

Heavy hurricane seasons in 2017 and 2018, along with devastating wildfires in California in those 2 years, affected more than 47 million people in the United States—about 15 percent of the national population. In response to disaster events like these, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide financial assistance for home repairs, child care, and transportation, as well as temporary housing for survivors during recovery periods. However, the program can be confusing to survivors, and would benefit from clearer communication.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our new report on FEMA’s program that provides assistance to individuals and households after a major disaster. You can also tune into our new podcast with GAO’s Chris Currie, an expert on disaster assistance programs, to learn more:

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) includes 18 types of assistance, such as financial assistance for home repairs, child care, and transportation. It is intended to be distributed quickly to promote recovery. The graphic below illustrates the types of assistance available under this program.  

Figure: Types of assistance available under the Individuals and Household Program

FEMA’s use of the Individuals and Households Program

Since 2010, FEMA has awarded more than $11.5 billion in IHP assistance to eligible survivors from 161 disasters. The below graphic shows disaster assistance dollars per year, with a significant increase in 2017 after the heavy hurricane season.

Challenges in accessing assistance

However, survivors have faced challenges in accessing this assistance, which is increasingly important as more larger-scale disasters affect the U.S. In our new report, we identified the following challenges facing survivors trying to access IHP assistance:

  • The process can be confusing for some survivors, causing them to miss out on some IHP assistance. FEMA cannot award aid for some losses, such as for personal property (i.e., damaged clothes, appliances, and furniture) without survivors first applying for a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. Our analysis of applicant data found that 1.7 million survivors did not complete this step for disasters in 2016-2018, and tens of thousands of applicants may not have received all of the aid from FEMA for which they would otherwise be eligible.
  • Survivors do not understand FEMA’s letters that communicate award decisions–sometimes causing survivors to stop pursuing assistance rather than submitting an appeal. One survivor we met with in North Carolina even told us she threw her letter in the trash thinking that FEMA denied her assistance. However, the FEMA official on the ground explained that she simply needed to provide more documentation.
  • Disaster survivors need more information to understand FEMA’s award decisions. This would help manage survivors’ expectations, build trust, and improve program transparency, which are important when providing public services to those who have experienced a traumatic event, including natural disasters.

 Disaster survivor characteristics and outcomes

Along with this report, we have also reviewed FEMA’s applicant records, which provide a unique look at the characteristics of those affected by major disasters and their outcomes. For example, applicants are more likely to be uninsured and live in communities with a high proportion of vulnerable groups—such as the elderly, disabled, and non-English speakers. Find out how survivors fared each year from 2016 to 2018, or review snapshots of outcomes for selected major disasters.

FEMA’s work with state, local and tribal entities

We have also previously reported on FEMA’s readiness to respond to disasters when state, local, and tribal entities need federal assistance. As we previously reported, state and local governments have limited preparedness to help their communities recover from disasters. Our new report also found that state, local, and territory officials had a limited understanding of the IHP program, making them poorly prepared to support effective recovery operations.


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Fighting Money Laundering with the Bank Secrecy Act

Money launderers beware: The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)—an agency within the Department of Treasury—has many ways of collecting information on financial activities, making life harder for criminals to hide their illicit cash.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at 2 recent reports on FinCEN’s use of geographic targeting orders (GTO) and the costs and benefits of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

What does money laundering look like?

Criminals who generate large sums of cash through illegal activities invariably must figure out where to safely park their loot. For some, the solution has been to use shell companies to buy luxury U.S. real estate.

Shell companies enable criminals to transact business under a company’s name, thereby hiding their individual identities. For example, criminals can set up shell companies in certain states without ever signing their names on paperwork. They can then use these shell companies to open bank accounts where they can “hide” these illicit funds within the financial system. Finally, they can then buy real estate to “clean” the money.

How does FinCEN use geographic targeting orders to find money laundering?

Since January 2016, FinCEN has implemented a real estate GTO that requires title insurers to report information on shell companies that are used to buy Manhattan or Miami homes with cash that cost $1 million or more. Over time, FinCEN has expanded the GTO to cover 12 metropolitan areas, lowered the property value threshold for reporting transactions, and broadened the definition of cash to include checks, funds transfers, and virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. With these changes, FinCEN has gained greater intelligence on the potential misuse of shell companies to launder money through real estate.

The Bank Secrecy Act prevents laundering secrets

The Bank Secrecy Act requires banks to file a variety of reports that could be useful to law enforcement for tracking money laundering. For instance, banks must file suspicious activity reports for transactions suspected of involving funds from illegal activities. They also must file currency transaction reports when customers deposit more than $10,000 in cash. In 2018, banks filed over 975,000 suspicious activity reports and nearly 14 million currency transaction reports.

In our report issued last month, we surveyed 6 federal law enforcement agencies and found that more than 72% of their staff used these Bank Secrecy Act reports from 2015–2018 for identifying new subjects to investigate or expanding ongoing investigations.

The Costs of compliance

While the Bank Secrecy Act reports benefit law enforcement, our September report also found that producing such reports and complying with other BSA requirements can be costly for banks. We reviewed 11 banks varying in size and location and estimated that their costs for complying with the BSA ranged from about $14,000 to about $21 million in 2018. We also found that these costs generally tended to be proportionally greater for the smaller banks than for the larger ones.

Want to learn more about our work on anti-money laundering efforts and the Bank Secrecy Act? Click here.

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