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With Another Nasty Election Looming, Prepping Goes Mainstream


Nearly 15 million Americans had 31 days or more of at-home preparedness in 2020.

In these unsettled times, after the pandemic and related disorder, if you're wearily preparing for election year chaos, you're not alone. The Department of Homeland Security says "the 2024 election cycle will be a key event for possible violence" which half of Americans expect to be a feature of future political contests, no matter who wins. As divided as the country is, such fears unite us in preparing for hard times, whether they result from political turmoil or the natural unpredictability of the world.

Growing Ranks of the Prepared

"Researchers say the number of preppers has doubled in size to about 20 million since 2017," Reuters reports. "Much of that growth is from minorities and people considered left-of-center politically, whose sense of insecurity was heightened by Donald Trump's 2016 election, the pandemic, more frequent extreme weather and the 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd."

Reuters based the story on attendees at a recent "Survival & Prepper Show" in Longmont, Colorado, where a "30-year-old lesbian" mingled with "bearded white men with closely cropped hair," "hippy moms," and "Latino families." Attendees cited COVID-19, supply-chain interruptions, power outages, and other disruptions that eroded faith in authorities and pushed them to prepare for emergencies.

It's unfortunate when anybody suffers through reminders that social order can be fragile. But it's wise for people to take responsibility for their well-being. In fact, the attendees at that show are representative of a significant segment of Americans.

"In 2022, 55 percent of adults surveyed stated they had pursued three or more of the twelve preparedness actions," the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports of survey results in its 2023 National Preparedness Report. "Although a variety of factors may be contributing to the changes in preparedness that FEMA has recorded over time, one of the most significant factors was the COVID-19 pandemic." [The FEMA statistics on Preparedness have always been highly inflated]

Among the more serious and sympathetic researchers on preparedness is U.S. Army Col. Chris Ellis, who has worked with FEMA to analyze the state of preparedness among Americans. In his 2021 paper, The Noah Virus: Who Is Infected With High Resiliency for Disaster?, he defines prepping as "the act of readying one's self or one's family, via means of supplies, tools, and skills, for a potential (often severe) future hazard, either natural or manmade."

"The 20 million US preppers mark has solidly been crossed," Ellis wrote for The Prepared in 2022. "If you use the broader definition of a prepper as someone who can handle at least two weeks of disruption, the number gets even higher."

Millions of Resilient Citizens

What's impressive is how many people don't stop there. Ellis uses the term "resilient citizens" to describe those "who can survive for 31 or more days at home without power, water, or transportation." He estimated that "14.9 million Americans had 31 days or more of at-home preparedness in 2020. Ultra-Highly Resilient Citizens (97 days or more of preparedness) jumped from four million people in 2017 to 6.7 million in 2020."

That's a lot of people who have put away canned goods, purchased generators, and made plans for storms and power outages with the neighbors. And yes, as per Reuters, the ranks of regular preppers and resilient citizens extend far beyond the bunker-dwellers we see on bad TV shows.

A Wide Variety of Prepared Americans

In his 2021 paper, using data from 2018, Ellis found that resilient citizens were 75.1 percent white, 6.5 percent black, 1.4 percent Asian, 1.9 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, 1.9 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 5.6 percent Hispanic. Urban dwellers made up 62.8 percent of resilient citizens, with 12 percent being small town/rural in the surveyed group. "Income, education, geographical residence, and political party either were statistically insignificant or not substantive," he added.

Of course, that was before the chaos of 2020, which spurred a sense of urgency among many.

"Asians disproportionately embraced prepping in '20, which perhaps makes sense given what they may have been hearing from friends and family back in Asia during early Covid combined with some of the anti-Asian racism that grew in the US in '20," Ellis wrote in 2022 using updated data.

The mainstreaming of preparedness overall should be no surprise given that Americans embracing one area of prepping—the ability to defend yourself and your family—have come to look much like the wider population in recent years.

"An estimated 2.9% of U.S. adults (7.5 million) became new gun owners from 1 January 2019 to 26 April 2021. Most (5.4 million) had lived in homes without guns," according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. "Approximately half of all new gun owners were female (50% in 2019 and 47% in 2020 to 2021), 20% were Black (21% in 2019 and in 2020–2021), and 20% were Hispanic (20% in 2019 and 19% in 2020–2021)."

People willing to breach the strong cultural and legal barriers to firearms ownership should find it relatively easy to stock the pantry and put away some candles. In uncertain times, taking on such personal responsibility becomes not just attractive but necessary.

"People are realizing that it's important to be able to depend on what you can do for yourself," Jennifer Council, a self-described black urban farmer, told Reuters.

Complacency Kills

The greatest barrier to resilience may be complacency, as recent disruptions fade into memory.

"From 2017 to 2019, FEMA observed a steep increase in the percentage of respondents who indicated (self-assessed) that they were prepared for a disaster," notes the 2023 National Preparedness Report. "However, by 2022, this percentage had dropped back to the level it was in 2017."

That's unfortunate, because the easing of public health fears (and damaging policy overreactions) and the return of relative order to the streets are a sign that crises are survivable, not an indicator that they're gone forever. Hopefully, 2024 won't deliver yet another unpleasant wake-up call.

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