Biden’s Attempt to Identify ‘Disadvantaged’ Communities is Proving to be Complicated

Views of downtown Sunbury, September 16, 2020, in Northumberland County, Penn.

Views of downtown Sunbury, September 16, 2020, in Northumberland County, Penn. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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The initiative could set some places up to receive more federal investment, but critics are worried that a draft version of the program excludes areas in need of extra help.

Complexities with the Biden administration’s attempt to steer more federal dollars to disadvantaged parts of the U.S. are coming to light, with critics saying places with coal-dependent economies, communities with more minority residents and much of Alaska are at risk of being left out.

Large sums of funding could eventually be affected, so the stakes are high. The effort stems from an executive order Biden signed instructing federal departments to find a way to make sure that at least 40% of the benefits from investments to address climate change, and other issues, like affordable housing, health care and workforce development, go to communities that are “disadvantaged, marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

For now, the potentially transformative initiative, known as Justice40, remains a work in progress. Agencies are trying to determine how to measure the benefits of federal spending, which is different from saying that 40% of funds should be sent to certain communities.

And then there’s the difficult and important task of defining which places are “disadvantaged” and could get more help, and which aren’t.

Worries Over Communities Being Left Out

One set of concerns centers on places where the coal industry and its decline have left a mark on both the economy and the environment. At least one U.S. senator from West Virginia, a leading coal producer, is arguing states should have more input in Justice40.

“A lot of coalfield communities that have abandoned mine lands and legacy abandoned mine features and water quality pollution … are not even a part of this map whatsoever,” Bobby Hughes, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, noted in comments filed with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Hughes was referring to the first draft of a "screening tool" map the council released in February showing which census tracts it initially classified as disadvantaged.

“Leaving out the coalfield communities and watersheds that are impacted by abandoned mine lands from the Justice 40 seems to go against what the Administration has been talking about all along when they were going to make it a priority to make investments in them,” he wrote.

The Alaska Municipal League, representing 165 cities, boroughs, and municipalities commended the Justice40 effort overall, but also wrote that the factors being considered by the White House don’t account for unique challenges in the state. 

For example, the loss of agricultural land is taken into consideration, which is less of an issue for Alaska. But at the same time the program doesn’t weigh a significant problem the state is facing: Rising temperatures are causing once-frozen parts of the landscape to melt.

“Across arctic and subarctic Alaska, schools, homes, roads, and critical infrastructure are literally sinking into a liquefying earth,” the municipal league wrote.

Meanwhile, Sacoby Wilson, director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health at the University of Maryland, said in a letter that while income is an important factor to consider with the initiative, “race should also be included because the scientific literature has proven it to be the most effective predictor of environmental injustice.”

Other advocates, too, are questioning the White House’s decision to not consider race when figuring out which communities are eligible for the initiative, and say hundreds of areas with large numbers of minority residents were excluded. But there is a possibility that if race is factored into the program’s criteria, it could draw legal challenges.

A Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson said the first draft is just that. “We launched the tool in beta version so that we could solicit feedback from the public and update the tool to identify more accurately communities that are shouldering a disproportionate share of environmental burdens and climate risks,” she said. To get more comments, the council has extended a deadline to submit comments about the draft until May 25.

The preliminary version of the White House database and map tool designated 23,410 census tracts as disadvantaged.

To identify those areas, the administration considered a wide range of factors, including income, the expected loss of agriculture and population due to climate change, traffic volume and diesel particulate exposure, the cost of housing, the rate of asthma, diabetes and heart disease, and educational attainment among residents.

Representing only about a third of the nation, these places would receive 40% of the benefits of federal programs around climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of certain water infrastructure.

Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group active in the region, said in an interview that some communities that already feel they aren’t getting the attention they deserve from federal programs could have an even harder time getting funding if they aren’t eligible for Justice40.

Based on an Appalachian Voices analysis, discussed during a recent webinar, many coal communities in areas like West Virginia are classified as disadvantaged in the first version of the White House map. But because the effort does not count issues specific to coal areas, like the number of abandoned mines, some were left out.

In fact, only 3% of coal mining towns in Pennsylvania are included, Barnes said. For example, Port Carbon, a town northeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is in a coal mining area. But it does not qualify as disadvantaged in terms of climate change or clean energy, clean water or health burdens, because it doesn’t meet the program’s threshold for low income levels. In some cases, an area’s income could be driven up if only some pockets are wealthier, Barnes explained.

Barnes acknowledged that the White House faces complicated questions when considering coal communities. She also noted that widening the administration’s definition too much could mean that  40% of the nation is entitled to 40% of the benefits under Justice40, potentially diluting the power of the program to direct dollars to communities that are most in need.

As it stands, federal funding for areas where the mine sites are located is tied to coal industry profits, which have been declining. The bipartisan infrastructure act did inject $11 billion for coal communities, but studies have put the need at closer to $20 billion to $30 billion.

Lawmakers Taking Notice

The criteria for Justice40 are also getting some scrutiny in Congress. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, questioned during a recent hearing why the unincorporated community of Institute in her state of West Virginia is not considered disadvantaged.

The community is home to West Virginia State University, a historically Black college. The town is also near a chemical plant “where there have been environmental issues from time to time,” Capito told Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan. 

“It totally qualifies,” she said.

But the university could be keeping the community off the list. While the unincorporated area is low-income enough to qualify as disadvantaged, the White House’s initial standards also require at least 80% of individuals 15 or older in a disadvantaged community to not be enrolled in higher education. In Institute, only 77% of residents older than 15 are not in college. 

Capito suggested that states could have better insights into which communities need help. 

“Why wouldn’t you let the states make that decision?” she said.  

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, whose district covers areas between Richmond and Hampton Roads in Virginia, said the initiative is an important step toward reaching “our collective vision to combatting historic environmental injustices.” 

But he also had some critical feedback, saying that “as with any innovation, there are changes that need to be made to this first iteration to ensure it is as inclusive and effective as possible.” 

“The current version of the tool fails to consider many important characteristics and demographics that are inextricably linked to environmental injustice in our nation,” McEachin added, cautioning that the initiative must capture the realities in the communities it targets and “ensure the existing inequities are not exacerbated.”

The Alaska Municipal League in its letter noted that in addition to not factoring in the thawing ground there, the initial criteria don’t account for other problems in the state.

The draft version, for instance, considers factors like the percentage of people in an area paying more than 30% of their income on housing. But while many communities in Alaska might not be paying excessive amounts for housing, they also may not have “running water, a suitable and safe sewage system, or safe electrical service.”

“Under the current methodology, communities in which these conditions are widespread are not considered disadvantaged,” the league wrote. 

Similarly, the initial set of criteria factors in health issues like the prevalence of diabetes, asthma and heart disease, the group wrote, but does not consider that suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives of all ages. Or that the Native youth suicide rate is 2.5 times higher than the overall national average, making these rates the highest across all ethnic and racial groups.

Racial Equity Concerns 

A recent analysis by the environmental news website Grist did find that the initial measurements chosen by the White House reflected the fact that people of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Even though the criteria did not directly consider race, a community’s chances of qualifying as disadvantaged rose with the percentage of its residents who are people of color, according to the analysis.

“Many of the criteria that the tool uses [in identifying disadvantaged areas] — proximity to hazardous facilities, linguistic isolation, and proximity to traffic, among others — are effectively functioning as proxies for race,” Grist noted.

The analysis found that 90% of census tracts, in which all of the residents are people of color, were considered disadvantaged. Among areas where 75% of the residents are minorities, 60% were considered disadvantaged.

Still, at least one commenter on Justice40 noted that the Grist analysis also found that 2,200 predominantly minority census tracts were not considered disadvantaged.

And Wilson, at the University of Maryland, argued that considering income without race isn’t enough. Studies, he said, have shown that even in examining people of the same income, Black populations have higher exposure to hazards than their white counterparts.

These studies demonstrate that race is "the most potent and consistent predictor of where pollution and other environmental burdens are concentrated,” he wrote, adding that, “using the income indicators alone without race indicators may exclude crucial communities.”

In addition, he said, the legacy of racist zoning and land-use planning have left predominantly African-American communities occupying swaths of unfavorable real estate with higher rates of poverty and crime, and fewer food options compared to white neighborhoods.

The Council on Environmental Quality spokesperson pointed to the Grist analysis, and its finding that the initial criteria does seem to capture the disproportionate impact people of color face.

Other efforts by the Biden administration to provide benefits based on race, including a program to forgive loans to Black farmers, have been bogged down in court. And White House officials have indicated that the prospect of legal challenges is influencing Justice40’s design. 

“We are trying to set up a framework and a tool that will survive, and one that still connects to what the on-the-ground impacts are that people are experiencing,” CEQ chairwoman Brenda Mallory told The New York Times. “I feel that we can do that based on race-neutral criteria.”

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