The Historic Opportunities for Racial Equity in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

02/02/2022 12:00am

Infrastructure quality varies by class and race. In our highly class-stratified society, the well-off have access to better infrastructure such as better equipped schools, better maintained roads, and cleaner air and water. High-income households also have the wealth to better endure and recover from the harms of infrastructure failures. Racial inequality is also built into our infrastructure. Much of what we call environmental racism is about inequities in infrastructure by race. But racial inequities in infrastructure encompass more than environmental racism. Low- and moderate-income households are disproportionately households of color, and they are among the most at risk of experiencing infrastructure failures. They are also among the most harmed from the country’s poor and failing infrastructure.

Consider some examples to illustrate this point:

People concerned about racial equity should be attentive to the racial inequities in our infrastructure and look for ways to rectify them. The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) presents an opportunity to begin to address some of these inequities.

The Biden administration should be given credit for achieving more on infrastructure than the Obama and Trump administrations. Despite making a lot of noise and big promises, the Trump administration failed to deliver any significant new infrastructure investments. The Obama administration succeeded in obtaining a $305 billion investment in transportation infrastructure. The Biden administration’s IIJA makes a $1.2 trillion investment in infrastructure with $550 billion in new funding. The IIJA also engages with racial equity in infrastructure more broadly and deeply than the Obama administration’s efforts. The IIJA links 14 different categories of infrastructure in one bill and puts in place multiple racial equity provisions. Because the racial disparities in infrastructure investments can be found in all types of infrastructure, the IIJA presents a historic opportunity for advancing infrastructure equity.

The Opportunities for Advancing Equity

Climate Resilience. Climate change has already begun to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and natural disasters, particularly storms, flooding, and extreme heat events. People of color in the US are particularly vulnerable to climate change’s detrimental effects. For example, Hurricane Harvey generated intense flooding, which was disproportionately felt by Black and Latino Texas residents. Initial flooding effects aside, Black and Latino residents also suffered from a slower recovery. A year after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, 27 percent of Latino Texans and 20 percent of Black Texans whose homes had been badly damaged by the hurricane reported that they were still unable to live in their homes, compared to 11 percent of white individuals. The flooding unequally impacted the health and well-being of Black and Latino individuals and their incomes. “[I]n the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to report lost income,” the White House reported.

Indigenous peoples in the US are also facing disproportionate harms from climate change. Climate change is expected to worsen indigenous communities’ already-threatened access to traditional foods, which provide sustenance and contribute to the communities’ economic, cultural, and medicinal well-being. For some Tribal communities, particularly Alaskan Natives, which make up 40 percent of Federally Recognized Tribes in the US, climate change’s impacts on the Arctic are expected to increase injuries from extreme weather events and thinning sea ice; limit the ability to safely hunt, fish, and herd; generate a lack of access to food and thus increase food insecurity; harm community well-being due to the loss of cultural and traditional practices; increase infectious illness risks; and cause permafrost thawing, the erosion of tribal lands, and subsequent loss of homes and community infrastructure.

The IIJA represents a historic investment in resilience and adaptation to climate change. Forty-seven billion dollars has been allocated for resilience funding, or in other words, for climate change adaptations. The bill’s historic investment in Tribal communities includes $216 million of funding “for Tribal climate resilience, adaptation and community relocation planning, design and implementation of projects which address the varying climate challenges facing Tribal communities across the country,” according to the US Department of the Interior. Because communities of color are disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change, particularly flood risks, this funding represents an important step in addressing the unique climate-caused vulnerabilities of these communities. Like many of the other provisions in this bill, however, the efficacy of these measures in addressing historical inequities will depend on their implementation.

Water Infrastructure. Clean and safe drinking water is similarly not equitably accessible to all communities across the United States. For example, in Illinois, which has more lead pipes than any other state, Black and Latino residents are twice as likely as their white counterparts to live in neighborhoods with the most lead service pipes. No amount of lead is safe for consumption, as it can, in kids, impair cognitive development, decrease academic performance, and later in life (or with adult consumption) cause cardiovascular conditions.

The IIJA is set to provide Illinois with $1.7 billion over the course of five years to ensure that water infrastructure is improved and all its residents have access to clean and safe drinking water. This bill also aims to correct some of the historical inequities in water infrastructure investment. For example, Section 50108 of the bill will require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator to submit a detailed report on communities facing the greatest financial burdens from spending for drinking water or wastewater, as well as recommendations on how to address these burdens and inequities.

Power Infrastructure. Pollution does not hurt all Americans equally. Many people of color in the United States face a greater risk of suffering from pollution than their white counterparts. It is especially important to consider how the increased risk of mortality from particulate matter pollution from power plants is disproportionately felt by low- and middle-income Black Americans. Black Americans are more likely to live near energy-generating facilities, such as coal power plants. Living near a coal power plant can cause poor health outcomes and, sometimes, death.

Though generally, “Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native communities are more likely to be burdened by pollution,” the White House reports, there are states in the United States where those most at risk of facing health and mortality risks from coal power plants are white Americans, particularly those who are low-income, such as in Ohio.

Generally, however, Black Americans are especially vulnerable to higher levels of air pollution than their white counterparts, regardless of their income level, and are exposed to approximately 50 percent more of the particulate matter pollution generated from burning fossil fuels than the general population. In Philadelphia, for example, which is 44 percent Black, individuals received a warning in 2019 from the American Lung Association stating that the air may put their health at risk.

The IIJA is the largest investment in clean energy transmission the United States has seen. Sixty-five billion dollars will be invested in power infrastructure “to enable a national, clean energy power grid,” according to the White House. Working toward a clean energy power grid will help address the unequal harms from pollution felt by people of color across the United States and by those subject to particulate matter pollution more broadly.

Broadband. The importance of broadband access to high-speed internet has never been clearer than over the past two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a switch to virtual work, education, and socialization. Access to broadband, however, is still not available to many. Black and Latino families are 9 and 15 percent less likely to have high-speed internet, respectively. Similarly, 35 percent of individuals living on Tribal Lands do not have access to broadband.

A small portion of the IIJA’s funding for broadband will be split evenly among all states, with each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, receiving $100 million in funding. However, the largest portion of funding available for broadband ($37.2 billion) will be split among the states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico based on each state’s share of underserved locations, in an effort to prioritize areas without networks capable of offering the benchmark for broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015. Given this strategy and the current maps used by the FCC, Texas, California, and Florida are expected to receive the greatest amount of funding. In the case of Texas, for example, 80 percent of Black individuals and 78 percent of Latino individuals have access to broadband as compared to 90 percent of non-Latino whites. This funding could generate huge changes in the ability of Black and Latino Texans to access high-speed internet and thus increase access to work and education opportunities.

Roads and Bridges. As with the white population, good roads and bridges are vital to the transportation needs of people of color. There is reason to worry that the worst roads and bridges are disproportionately in communities of color which tend to lack the wealth that would be necessary for sufficient infrastructure investments. Additionally, because of the relatively low income and wealth of people of color, the damage from poor roads and bridges can be more economically harmful to these populations.

For example, we can look at Mississippi. By state, Black people make up the largest share of the total population in Mississippi. In 2020, Mississippi’s civil engineers gave Mississippi a D-minus grade for its roads. All Mississippi drivers are harmed by the damage caused to their vehicles because of these bad roads. The Black population, however, is harmed more severely because of the low-income of Black households in the state. The median Black household income is about half the median white household income. Car repairs of the same cost would proportionally take a larger bite out of Black incomes than white incomes.

The Mississippi civil engineers featured four geographic areas in their infrastructure report. The city of Jackson was the area with the largest share of the population that is Black, and it was also the area with the worst roads. The bad roads in Jackson imposed the highest vehicle repair cost on local drivers of the four areas. In Jackson, the poor roads can cost a driver over $2,000 in repairs annually. This amounts to 7 percent of the median income of a Black household in the state. The same cost is 4 percent of the median white income. Because of this significant cost, potholes are understandably a major complaint by the residents in this majority Black city.

The IIJA will provide Mississippi $3.3 billion for road repair. The state, and localities like the city of Jackson, will be able to compete for additional funding. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has indicated that equity concerns and addressing the needs of historically underserved communities will be among the criteria considered in the distribution of these additional funds.

Public Transit. Eleven percent of individuals in the US use public transit on a daily or weekly basis. In urban regions, Black and Latino individuals, immigrants, and lower-income individuals are particularly likely to rely on public transit on a regular basis. Alarmingly, our public transit has, as stated by the White House, a “multibillion-dollar repair backlog, representing more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement.”

Access to public transit is also inequitably distributed among demographic groups. In Houston, for example, not only do minority groups represent the majority of public transit users, they face inadequate access to high-frequency transit lines compared to white Houstonians. Similarly, Houston areas determined by a LINK Houston Report to be in high need of public transit infrastructure investment are primarily located in communities of color. The IIJA, based on current formula funding alone, is set to provide Texas $3.3 billion over the next five years to improve its public transportation options.

Railroads. The IIJA also invests a historic amount—the most since the creation of Amtrak in 1971—into passenger rail. Notably, $66 billion have been allocated to address the maintenance backlog of Amtrak, upgrade the Northeast corridor route from Boston to the District of Columbia, and expand the rail service past the Northeast and Atlantic.

Although this investment in passenger rail does not directly address historical inequities faced by people of color in the United States, the effects of pandemic-caused closures in Amtrak service highlight the potential importance of passenger rail for Black communities in the US. Not only do Black individuals represent 19 percent of Amtrak’s passengers (but only 13 percent of the US population), Amtrak services many predominantly Black communities, such as Greenwood and Jackson (Mississippi), Memphis (Tennessee), New Orleans (Louisiana), and Birmingham (Alabama). Ensuring that Amtrak continues to service these routes is important economically. The White House notes that “one study found that a metropolitan area’s 10 percent increase in transit seats or rail service miles per capita is associated with up to $1.8 billion per year in increased wages.” Lastly, we should also note that an increase in rail service miles represents an increase in available public transportation. 

Conclusion

Though not comprehensive, this article has presented examples of some of the racial inequities of our current infrastructure and how the IIJA could begin to address these inequities. Sectors included in the bill but not presented in this article are airports ($25 billion), pollution remediation ($21 billion), ports ($17 billion), electric vehicles ($15 billion), road safety ($11 billion), reconnecting communities ($1 billion), and western water infrastructure ($1 billion).

The IIJA also represents the largest investment the United States has ever seen in the infrastructure of many sectors, notably in climate resilience, water, public transit, clean transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, broadband, the tackling of legacy pollution, and Amtrak. It is further worth noting that some of these investments are historic not only regarding their size but also in the signals they send. For example, the bill’s historically large investment in climate resilience is also an important indicator from the federal government that the harms of climate change are already being felt and must be addressed.

More importantly, this bill has the potential to represent a major first step in addressing racial inequities and existing infrastructure failures. Notably, if implemented well, major concerns faced by people of color throughout the United States—unsafe and car-damaging roads, lack of access to high-speed internet, health risks as a result of poor water infrastructure and particulate matter pollution, insufficient and unreliable public transit, and high flood and other climate change risks—can be significantly improved by the IIJA.

Unfortunately, state governments can derail the opportunities that the federal government has provided for racial equity. The success in addressing infrastructure failures and historical racial inequities will depend strongly on how it is implemented by states, and there are very serious challenges to achieving the IIJA’s full racial equity potential.

Many conservative-led states may not be aligned with the racial equity goals set forth in the bill and may choose to spend their funds without equity in mind. Even in states with liberal leadership, policymakers may use the federal dollars to merely substitute for state infrastructure dollars without making any new efforts to promote racial equity. The IIJA has provided a historic opportunity for advancing racial equity in infrastructure investments. Only if state and local activists force their elected officials to take advantage of it will its full potential be realized.    

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