NFPA releases a new report on Poverty in the US and the risk of fire

34.6 percent more people living in poverty, number of poor people in suburbs and exurbs doubles

August 26, 2021 – The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has released a new report linking poverty and elevated fire risk in homes, using recent fire and census data. The research looks at challenges within low-income communities, successful programs that led to change, and ways that community risk reduction (CRR) efforts can help lessen hazards in areas below or at the poverty level.

“We cannot expect to find poverty identified as a factor that contributed to a home fire in fire investigation reports, but its influence is real enough,” said NFPA Applied Research Manager Rita Fahy, PhD, lead researcher on the report. “This is not to say that poverty conditions invariably lead to fires. Admittedly, the problem of poverty and fire is complex, and the influences of poverty will vary from one situation to another. Addressing this problem in all its complexity represents a substantial policy challenge that will require the involvement of multiple stakeholders within and outside government.”

The new NFPA research underscores the following:

  • The connection between poverty and elevated fire risk has been documented in multiple studies, some going back as far as the late 1970s and early 1980s.
  • Factors associated with poverty and elevated fire risk include family stability, crowdedness, the percentage of owner-occupied homes, older housing stock, the proportion of vacant houses, and the ability to speak English.
  • Since 1967, the share of the US population living at or near the poverty level has fluctuated between 15 and 20 percent of the population.
  • Based on the rise in total US population, the number of people living in poverty in the US increased 34.6 percent between 2000 and 2017.
  • Although most poor people and poor neighborhoods are in dense urban areas, the number of poor people and high-poverty census tracts in suburbs and exurbs has doubled.
  • Successful programs to reduce fire incident rates have been introduced in high-poverty areas. The process of CRR, as described in NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development shows promise for future success.

Efforts that have helped to reduce loss in communities below the poverty level include:

  • Codes and standards addressing a wide range of issues related to fire safety in homes, including regulations surrounding the installation of smoke alarms and relatively recent requirements for automatic suppression systems in new housing.
  • Flammability standards that limit the opportunity for furnishings and contents of a dwelling, as well as its building materials and finishes, to contribute to fire and smoke development and spread.
  • Requirements that address safe egress from homes under fire conditions.
  • Standards for electricity and electrical products that protect consumers from possible fires and electrical hazards.

However, there are challenges reaching poor populations with these life-saving methods.

If the correlation between poverty and fire risk is to improve, we must:

  • Enforce fire, building, and related housing codes to ensure all rental housing meets minimum safety standards.
  • Improve and expand efforts designed to reach poor populations with life-saving methods.
  • Recognize that many poor families cannot afford safe housing that is equipped with properly installed smoke alarms and are even more unlikely to live in homes protected by residential sprinklers.
  • Understand that when utilities are shut off, people resort to using candles, sometimes make unsafe connections to electrical power sources, or use makeshift heating devices.
  • Remember that safety standards that apply to new furniture or equipment can take years to impact homes that rely on used or hand-me-down products.

For the most part, fire departments cannot directly impact the socioeconomic challenges that face the communities they serve, but their unique understanding of local hazards affords them a vital role in risk mitigation efforts. In fact, understanding the population characteristics that can contribute to risk allows local authorities to better allocate resources and develop programs that address local fire safety needs. Through their everyday work, fire departments are well-positioned to identify and prioritize specific local risks and contribute to effective, community-specific intervention strategies through the process of conducting a community risk assessment (CRA).

Resources like CRAIG 1300™, a digital dashboard recently developed by NFPA can help communities capture and analyze community data to conduct an effective CRA, which serves as the first step in creating an impactful CRR plan. Another great resource is a new seminal report, Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem which offers valuable insights on the nation’s fire problem and ways to advance fire and life safety.

For this release and other announcements about NFPA initiatives, research, and resources, please visit the NFPA press room.

NFPA: 125 Years of Protecting People and Property

The National Fire Protection Association® (NFPA®) is a global self-funded nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards. The association began its work to solve the fire problem in a young, industrialized nation in 1896 and has since become a global force known for advancing safety worldwide. NFPA delivers information and knowledge through more than 325 consensus codes and standards, research, training, education, outreach, and advocacy; and by partnering with others who share an interest in furthering the NFPA mission. In celebration of its 125th Anniversary, NFPA will be hosting a Conference Series and other initiatives that reflect the association’s steadfast commitment to advancing fire and life safety for the next 125 years and beyond. For more information or to view NFPA codes and standards for free, visit