Federal Environmental Justice Program Could Worsen Outcomes in Low-Income Neighborhoods

Without more specific regulations, the Justice40 initiative, which requires spending 40 percent of federal funds in underserved areas, could fund projects that increase emissions and pollution.

2 minute read

May 30, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Highway Construction

Robbt / Flickr

“In President Biden’s first weeks in office, he established an environmental justice initiative called Justice40, which aims to direct benefits from federal investments to disadvantaged communities.” As Abigail Grimminger reports in Streetsblog, “The executive order listed the following as areas of emphasis: 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 critical clean water infrastructure.”

But as states and cities receive federal funding for climate projects, “states and local governments are primed to make these investments without any direction on how to ensure that 40 percent of the benefits go to the people and places most in need.” As Grimminger explains, this is because, “First, US DOT does not have the authority to meet that number because 69 percent of infrastructure funds are formula grants and have very few strings attached.”

“Second, even if the US DOT was on track, there’s a huge difference between simply spending 40 percent of money within underserved communities, and spending 40 percent to accomplish something productive or bring measurable benefits to those places,” Grimminger notes, pointing to highway expansion projects as one example of an infrastructure investment that would bring negative impacts, despite counting toward the 40 percent goal.

According to Grimminger, “The Office of Management and Budget is expected to release guidance on Justice40 soon. Fundamentally, it needs to be honest and clear about what funding they have the power to steer—and consider that in the future when they negotiate huge amounts of funding that they cannot influence at all.”

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