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How agencies will decide who gets funds for those facing pollution and health issues


The Biden administration is trying to fundamentally shift how the federal government allocates money for things like clean energy, transit and affordable housing. The goal is to direct that funding specifically to communities facing high levels of pollution and health problems. So how do agencies determine who qualifies? Well, some researchers and advocates are concerned that the government is ignoring one of the most relevant criteria. NPR's Seyma Bayram is here with us to explain. Hi, Seyma.


SHAPIRO: So what is the Biden administration's goal here?

BAYRAM: So Ari, there are a handful of new laws focused on climate initiatives and infrastructure. And together, they include a ton of money for things like clean transit, affordable housing and clean energy development. And the Biden administration wants to make sure that money goes to the places that need it the most. These are communities that may live near polluting industries or have higher rates of asthma in part because of that pollution. It also means communities that are at most risk from the effects of climate change like flood or wildfire risks. So we're talking billions of dollars. And one big question is - how do you figure out which communities qualify?

SHAPIRO: So how is the administration determining which communities should benefit?

BAYRAM: So the administration's actually developed this tool. It's called the Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool. And basically, it's an interactive map. Anyone can go on to this map online. And you can plug in an address or zip code, and it spills out all of this data. For example, I searched for Binghamton, N.Y., where I grew up. I could see how income and rates of asthma and life expectancy were really different depending on where you lived in the city. The map also includes a ton of other stuff like the share of homes that are likely to have lead paint in them or access to transit or amount of green space. Agencies are supposed to use all these different indicators to decide where to target their funding. But one indicator they aren't taking into account is race, and researchers and advocates say that's a blind spot.

SHAPIRO: Right. I know from NPR's own reporting that Black and brown communities in the U.S. tend to bear the brunt of environmental and health risks.

BAYRAM: That's exactly right. Here's Ana Baptista. She teaches environmental policy at The New School.

ANA BAPTISTA: Race, even more so than income, tends to be a driving factor in disparities of environmental pollution.

BAYRAM: For instance, studies have shown that Black Americans suffer disproportionately from air pollution regardless of their income level. That's because many of these health and environmental problems are a direct result of racist housing policies that mean Black communities are more likely to be located near polluting highways or industries. Advocates say it's a mistake to try to address and fix those historical wrongs without taking race into account. Here's Manuel Salgado from WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

MANUEL SALGADO: I think trying to account for the problems that race and racism have caused in this nation without addressing - without acknowledging race is like trying to solve it with two arms tied behind your back.

BAYRAM: And a recent study found that if you use this tool without taking race into account, you may not be able to address these disparities or could even make them worse.

SHAPIRO: If the experts seem to agree that race is an important factor to consider, why isn't the federal government doing it?

BAYRAM: Basically, they're worried about legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that affirmative action in universities is illegal, which makes many people worry that any government program that takes race into account could be legally challenged. When I asked the administration about this, they gave me a written statement saying that they acknowledge that communities of color suffer disproportionately from environmental and health burdens, and they think this tool will still direct resources into the communities that need it most even if it doesn't explicitly take race into account. Now, legal scholars I spoke to say the White House isn't wrong to worry, but it sets a concerning precedent. Here's Olatunde Johnson at Columbia Law School.

OLATUNDE JOHNSON: Caring about racial inequality is not unconstitutional, and there's nothing in the opinions that say that.

BAYRAM: Johnson says she understands the administration's worries, but there's nothing yet legally preventing the government from considering race. Sure, they might face lawsuits if they do, but communities of color could lose out on their share of these historic investments if they don't.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Seyma Bayram. Thanks so much.

BAYRAM: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.