White House moves to identify ‘disadvantaged’ communities for increased federal funding

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In an important step toward changing the way federal funds are distributed, the Biden administration has preliminarily identified nearly a third of the nation’s census tracts as “disadvantaged” and in line for more help from the federal government. .

A week after taking office last year, Biden said he wants to address historic inequalities that have left the country’s disadvantaged communities behind to receive federal funding.

Federal agencies are still working out exactly how to do this. But in the meantime, the White House Council on Environmental Quality has provided preliminary insight into communities that could benefit from Biden’s vision.

The first draft of the database identified 23,410 census tracts, or nearly a third of the nation, as disadvantaged. They represent a broad list of communities that could see more federal funds directed towards climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean public transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development. works, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution and development of critical drinking water supply infrastructure.

Among the communities described as “struggling” in the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool project are major cities like Newark, New Jersey, but also rural areas like Mason County, Washington, which has seen a decline of the timber industry after protections were put in place. place decades ago to preserve the spotted owl.

A map showing communities designated as disadvantaged that is part of the Biden administration’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. (White House Council on Environmental Quality)

To identify the zones, the administration considered a wide range of factors, ranging from the expected loss of agriculture and population due to climate change, traffic volume and exposure to diesel particulates, the cost of housing, rates of asthma, diabetes and heart problems. disease in the community.

A consolation for areas initially not considered to be in trouble is that the database is a work in progress. Stating that it wants to make sure no communities in need are missed, the environment council posted a notice in the Federal Register, asking local and state government officials, academics and members of the public to review the database and suggest ways to refine it by April 15.

“The hope is that the tool reflects the realities on the ground and that we correctly identify disadvantaged communities,” the council official said.

National data sets that will allow the government to compare communities across the country will be particularly valuable, the official said. But the council would also like local studies and data to further refine the tool.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, a member of a White House advisory committee and president and CEO of a Michigan water justice organization, We the People of Detroit, said she hopes data Relevant information is generally not considered in federal funding decisions, as data collected by community activists will be included.

“It’s a way to help identify communities that have been marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution – so the federal government can do a better job of delivering the benefits of programs and investments to the places that need them.” need it most,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told Biden’s environmental justice advisory board on Thursday.

Administering Biden’s vision

Through an executive order in January 2021 creating the Justice40 initiative, Biden asked federal departments to find a way to ensure that 40% of federal investments to address issues such as climate change, affordable housing , health care, and workforce development—whether through grants, individual benefits, or government contracts—go to communities that are “disadvantaged, marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by poverty.” pollution”.

“We’re trying to fundamentally change the way the federal government operates,” an official with the White House Council on Environmental Quality said. Road Fifty Last week.

Federal departments and agencies are still working on exactly how to achieve Biden’s vision. An interim directive issued last July by the Office of Management and Budget asked them to determine which programs are covered by the executive order and how to measure whether or not 40% of investments go to struggling communities.

However, the guidelines put 21 federal programs on a fast track, directing the departments that administer them to develop a draft plan for implementing the order and identify any obstacles by last fall.

The pilot project includes programs such as:

  • Treasury Department Partnerships for Opportunity and Revitalization of the Workforce and Economy
  • Department of Homeland Security Flood Mitigation Assistance Program.
  • Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program.
  • Department of Transportation’s Low or Zero Emission Vehicle Program.
  • The State’s Revolving Funds for Drinking Water and Clean Water from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Brownfields Program and the Superfund Remediation Program.

Ultimately, there may be limits to the administration’s effort, acknowledged Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Business and Environmental Justice and advisory board member. “With all the new efforts, the need is greater than the available resources. Some may feel left out,” she said.

Still, Flowers said focusing on the communities, which based on the data needs it, will help “level the playing field,” she said. “Access to federal funds will no longer just go to communities that can afford to pay lobbyists or are politically well-connected,” she said. “For the first time ever, there is an intentional effort to identify and provide resources to communities in distress.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had no immediate comment.

Racial demographics not a factor

Lewis-Patrick acknowledged that in the current polarized political environment, it remains to be seen whether the effort will last beyond the Biden administration. The idea of ​​moving more funds to troubled areas could be attacked as mainly benefiting minorities in urban areas.

However, the first draft of the database shows distressed communities scattered across urban and rural areas.

A screening tool fact sheet said racial demographics were not among the factors considered. The diversity of communities identified, Lewis-Patrick said, shows the effort would not just benefit people of color in urban areas, but “poor white people, Navajo nations, Hispanics.” This could allow her to have a lasting impact, she said.

“If we do it the right way, it’s easy to see the greater good,” she said.

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