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Infrastructure Priorities for Racial Equity

Algernon Austin

How The People’s Budget Helps and Trump’s Budget Hurts

Great societies depend on great infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+ in their latest Infrastructure Report Card. We need to make massive investments if we wish to continue to have a strong, dynamic, and globally competitive economy. We will decline and become a poorer country if we don’t invest in our roads and bridges, energy and mass transit systems, schools and parks.

Fixing America’s dilapidated infrastructure would present the country with a tremendous opportunity to make advances on one of its most vexing problems: racial inequality. Historically, communities of color have received less and lower quality infrastructure than predominantly white communities. Communities of color have literally been the dumping ground for the consequences of bad infrastructure decisions. Communities of color are more likely to be exposed to hazardous waste, toxic emissions, and noxious materials. It was also these communities that were divided and destroyed to make way for highways leading to white suburbs.

The call for major infrastructure investments means that we can repair our infrastructure and make a significant advance for racial equity at the same time. We can break from our past practices of under-investment and under-development for communities of color, and repair and construct infrastructure with racial equity in mind. Wise infrastructure investments can benefit all Americans in a racially equitable way.  

The People’s Budget: A Roadmap for the Resistance proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus makes the infrastructure investments needed to advance racial equity. President Trump’s America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again includes cuts to infrastructure programs which will weaken our infrastructure and worsen racial inequality.

For example, consider the lead found in America’s aging homes and water supply. Children exposed to lead can suffer from permanent intellectual and behavioral disabilities. For communities of color—particularly for families living in old housing stock in urban areas—infrastructure dollars need to be dedicated to significantly reducing the risk of children being exposed to lead. The People’s Budget explicitly addresses our “lead-contaminated water systems” and proposes “$350 billion to replace aging drinking water pipes in our most vulnerable communities across the country [emphasis added].” The Trump budget does not cut funding for the removal of lead paint, as Republicans have tried to do in the past (and as they may have originally proposed before the information was leaked and received negative attention). It increases funding for lead removal by $20 million. But this amount would still leave the Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes underfunded by over $200 million by its most minimal budget estimate.

The Flint water crisis woke the nation up to one problem with our water infrastructure. But a lesser known one is “water poverty.” American Indian and Alaska Native communities and Latino “colonias” along the border with Mexico are among the communities suffering from water poverty. As mentioned above, the People’s Budget dedicates significant funding for water infrastructure projects, and is attentive to addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged communities. The Trump budget eliminates Environmental Protection Agency funding for infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native villages and the Mexican border—precisely the communities suffering the most from water poverty. 

The physical condition and resources available in a school has a significant impact on learning. Schools serving students of color tend to have worse physical resources than schools serving white students. The People’s Budget invests $75 billion to repair and modernize our schools. The Trump budget does not provide any funds to address school infrastructure.

Over the past decade, Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes of Brookings report, the distance between where people of color reside and where jobs are located has increased. People of color are less likely to have access to private vehicles than whites. They are more likely to need public transit to get to work, school, health care, and recreation. The People’s Budget invests in modern, affordable transit; the Trump budget does not.

Although housing is not typically thought of as infrastructure, it is certainly one of the physical structures necessary for the functioning of our economy. Less than half of Latino and African American householders own their own home. Too many renters of all races have to struggle to pay rent, but Latinos and African Americans are overrepresented among renters who struggle. The People’s Budget makes significant investments to create more affordable housing and to end homelessness. The Trump Budget eliminates housing assistance programs, and reduces funds for rental assistance.

Communities of color lag behind predominantly white communities, in part, because they have suffered from a history of under-investment and under-development in their infrastructure. As we make plans to restore America’s infrastructure, we should also be making plans to correct these historic wrongs. President Trump’s budget is grossly neglectful of the infrastructure needs of people of color. The People’s Budget, on the other hand, strengthens and modernizes infrastructure for all Americans and takes care to address the communities that have been under-invested in in the past. It is a budget that will help provide true 21st-century infrastructure for all Americans.