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U.S. infrastructure bill marks the beginning of a journey, not the end of a debate

Western Center’s Executive Director Crystal D. Crawford, JD, and Manal J. Aboelata, MPH, Deputy Executive Director at Prevention Institute and author of a new book, Healing Neighborhoods, reflect on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and what this once-in-a-generation public investment could mean for ensuring all Americans the human right to live in a healthy neighborhood.

As we reflect on the historic $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill President Biden signed into law at the end of last year, we’re acutely aware of the promise and peril this massive public investment holds for people in the United States. As residents and professionals who live and work in LA County, we witness firsthand the challenges and opportunities that arise when large sums of taxpayer dollars become available to improve neighborhood conditions.

In 2016, LA County voters got behind a series of ballot measures to fund high quality transportation, safe and well-maintained parks and open space, quality housing and supportive services, and storm water management systems—to the tune of $1.5 billion per year.

Our experience in LA has many lessons to offer. Just like now, the promise is a tremendous opportunity to direct public funds to where they are most needed and make a positive difference in people’s daily lives. The peril, like now, is a failure to reckon with the legacy of segregation and its far-reaching intergenerational effects on community health, safety, and well-being.

It takes years, if not decades, to see the impacts of infrastructure spending. Past measures show us that investing in the status quo can reinforce and exacerbate “winners” and “losers.” Public investments must proactively prioritize funding in the highest need communities and inclusive engagement processes.

We know that our most disenfranchised communities could immediately put government resources toward essential health-promoting infrastructure. And yet, there are few guarantees that public dollars will flow toward the communities that need them most without strategic advocacy, grassroots organizing, and sometimes litigation.

As hard as it was to secure 228 congressional votes from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, it’s no wonder President Biden, Vice President Harris, and House Speaker Pelosi hail the infrastructure bill as a major victory. But our experiences in LA demonstrate that the passage of the law is a beginning, not an end. The long road to equitable implementation lies ahead. Delivering on the full promise of this much-needed law requires a fair, just, and equitable distribution of these public resources.

From 2018-2020, as a Stanton Fellow of the Durfee Foundation, Manal embarked on a journey to better understand what it would take to proactively invest public resources in LA’s marginalized neighborhoods to improve conditions for health, safety, and well-being in Black and Brown communities. She documented her observations in Healing Neighborhoods, a groundbreaking new book that provides a framework and insights that resonate with the moment in which we find ourselves.

The “6 Levers for Tackling Inequities in Public Finance Measures” outlined in Healing Neighborhoods increase the likelihood that dollars will get to where they are needed most:

  1. Ensure clear funding guidelines, set asides, and earmarks to prioritize historically disinvested low-income communities and communities of color;
  2. Design and implement high quality technical assistance programs to proactively support and engage under-resourced Black and brown communities;
  3. Create funding programs that remove barriers to community-based organizations and low-wealth jurisdictions so that they can compete for public dollars;
  4. Include racially, ethnically and economically diverse community residents in the process using popular, multicultural and multi-lingual engagement strategies;
  5. Bake accountability and transparency measures into the system to ensure that taxpayers and lawmakers can see how money is spent, and make course corrections if gaps are not closing;
  6. Make data on all aspects of implementation available in timely and easy to understand formats.

As with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008, there will be tremendous pressure to get shovels in the ground for shovel-ready projects. The risk of over focusing dollars on shovel-ready projects to show near-term results, however, is that ideas and places that already have less infrastructure capacity will continue to be left behind and public dollars will default to existing programs and traditional resource flows.

COVID-19 and the nation’s racial reckoning have made it clear that to thrive, our nation needs healthier, safer, and more equitable conditions and outcomes. To get there, we’ll have to spend in new ways, proactively driving dollars to the neighborhoods that need them most.

What we’ve learned in LA is that it is incumbent on all of us—residents, advocates, public health practitioners, racial justice leaders and social justice lawyers–to stay focused and vigilant in the days, months, and years ahead. Public money and public trust hang in the balance. We hope that when future generations look back on this historic bill signing, they recognize it as a turning point toward health equity, racial justice, financial security, and community stability in this country.

For more information about Healing Neighborhoods, or to print your own copy, go to: Healing Neighborhoods.

 

 

 

 

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