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Public Choice

, Volume 160, Issue 1–2, pp 155–180 | Cite as

The Chicago Fire of 1871: a bottom-up approach to disaster relief

  • Emily C. SkarbekEmail author
Article

Abstract

Can bottom-up relief efforts lead to recovery after disasters? Conventional wisdom and contemporary public policy suggest that major crises require centralized authority to provide disaster relief goods. Using a novel set of comprehensive donation and expenditure data collected from archival records, this paper examines a bottom-up relief effort following one of the most devastating natural disasters of the nineteenth century: the Chicago Fire of 1871. Findings show that while there was no central government relief agency present, individuals, businesses, corporate entities and municipal governments were able to finance the relief effort though donations. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a voluntary association of agents with a stake in relief outcomes, leveraged organizational assets and constitutional rules to administer aid.

Keywords

Disaster relief Aid Charitable giving Natural disaster Chicago Fire 1871 

JEL Classification

D64 D71 H41 H84 

Notes

Acknowledgments

Email: EmilySkarbek@kcl.ac.uk. Address: King’s College London, Department of Political Economy, Strand Campus, WC2R 2LS London, United Kingdom. The author thanks Paul Dragos Aligica, Bruce Caldwell, John Meadowcroft, Daniel Sutter, David Skarbek, two anonymous referees, and the editors for helpful comments. Much of the research for this paper was conducted while at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at meetings of the Public Choice Society and the Southern Economics Association.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s College LondonLondonUK

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