Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | As billions of dollars flow to state and local governments under the infrastructure bill, public officials are responsible for using it to create a fairer economy.
Billions of federal infrastructure dollars are going out to states and localities, and public officials must make crucial decisions now about where and how the money is spent. If decisions are made from the top-down, rather than with community voices at the center, we’ll fail to spend the money effectively or equitably—just as we’ve done in the past.
Infrastructure projects have a long history of creating inequality and segregation. The federal interstate highway system connected our country by displacing more than 1 million people, primarily Black communities. This time around, whether it’s laying fiber optic cable or building offshore wind farms, state and local government leaders must ensure that infrastructure investments not only avoid perpetuating racism and inequality, but also proactively build a more inclusive economy.
California’s approach to inclusive economic development may offer a model for other places. The state’s economy is a powerhouse, but it also grapples with profound economic disparity. Nearly half of working Californians, disproportionately people of color, struggle to make ends meet. State infrastructure is faring no better. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives California a C- for its roads, bridges, water and energy systems.
That is not just or sustainable. So state and local leaders in California have prioritized deep collaboration—not only with stakeholders in the private and philanthropic sectors, higher education and labor, but also, most importantly, with the communities these investments are intended for.
Take the state’s $600 million Community Economic Resilience Fund, which finances community-driven economic planning across California regions. Awardees in 13 different regions receive $5 million each to fund the participatory creation of roadmaps for inclusive economic development.
As just one example, in the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino counties) a coalition of local nonprofits, businesses, academic institutions, and city and county officials are leading a two-year participatory planning process with a focus on creating high-quality jobs in sectors that align with the region’s workforce and other assets, such as green energy and advanced manufacturing and logistics.
Meanwhile, other regions have already begun to move on to the implementation phase, with $39 million recently awarded to projects throughout the state. What does this economic development by and for the people look like? It's a fish market in Mendocino, an urban farm in Santa Ana, a food hall in Sacramento and a green loan fund in Los Angeles. Each community has different priorities, but in each, community members have real power to help steer decisions that will affect their lives and opportunities for generations.
This model is successful when government leaders and business developers don’t come with their own vision but rather work with community members to identify existing resources, strengths and opportunities. The aim should be to transition local economies to be more equitable and climate-resilient while supporting community aspirations, whether that’s improved transportation, robust health care systems, sustainable energy solutions, or access to quality education and job training programs.
For example, agriculture has long been a dominant industry in California’s Central Valley, where 25% of the nation’s food is produced. The region can evolve its economy by investing heavily in emerging agtech and climate-adaptive food production, including by training workers in these new competencies. A new coalition of government, community, philanthropy, private sector and educational leaders—the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation—is leading this effort to leverage the region’s unique assets and build a future of food innovation that can spur equitable economic growth.
Of course, inclusive planning is just one piece of the puzzle. The public sector must ensure that community groups and grassroots organizations have the resources—people, money, time—to receive and deploy public funding to pursue their community's priorities, if they choose. Historically, higher-income communities are the first to receive public investment, while many low-income communities and communities of color require additional time to prepare and compete. To counteract this, public agencies should phase their funding to allow time for communities to build their capacity and mobilize.
Philanthropic organizations can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the public sector and communities. In particular, they can fund efforts to equip community leaders and nonprofits, enabling them to advocate effectively for their communities' needs and ensure a fair share of investment. In California, philanthropy supported the Community Economic Mobilization Initiative to provide grant funding for community organizations to leverage public funding opportunities.
The White House has already announced $220 billion in federal infrastructure funding allocated to projects across the country. Billions more are on the way, and decisions need to happen right now about what projects get prioritized, where they are located, who gets hired to implement them, and how the economic and community benefits are distributed.
But state and local officials must not make those decisions alone—they should commit now to proactively inviting community voices to the table.
We are at a crossroads. Let's choose the path that doesn’t just rebuild, but also reshapes our economy for more shared prosperity.
Don Howard is president and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, working toward a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically.