In a significant step toward changing how federal funds are distributed, the Biden administration has preliminarily identified nearly a third of the nation’s census tracts as “disadvantaged” and in line for more help from the federal government.
A week after taking office last year, Biden said he wanted to address historic inequities that have left disadvantaged communities around the country behind in receiving federal funding.
Federal agencies are still working through exactly how to do this. But in the meantime, the White House Council on Environmental Quality has provided a preliminary glimpse at which communities might benefit from Biden’s vision.
The first draft of the database identified 23,410 census tracts, or nearly a third of the nation, as disadvantaged. They represent a sweeping list of communities that could see more federal funds headed their way for climate change, 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.
Among the communities described as “distressed” in the draft Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool are big cities like Newark, New Jersey, but also rural areas like Mason County, Washington, which has seen a decline in the timber industry after protections were put in place decades ago to preserve the spotted owl.
To identify the areas, the administration considered a wide range of factors, from the expected loss of agriculture and population due to climate change, to traffic volume and diesel particulate exposure, to the cost of housing, to the rate of asthma, diabetes and heart disease in the community.
A solace for areas initially not considered distressed is that the database is a work in progress. Saying it wants to make sure it is not missing any communities in need, the environmental council posted a notice in the Federal Register, asking local and state government officials, academics and members of the public to examine the database and suggest ways to refine it by April 25.
“The hope is that the tool reflects the realities on the ground and we are properly identifying disadvantaged communities,” the council official said.
Particularly valuable will be national datasets that allow the government to compare communities around the country, the official said. But the council would also welcome local studies and data to further refine the tool.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, a member of a White House advisory committee and president and CEO of a Michigan water justice organization, We the People of Detroit, said she hoped relevant data not usually considered in federal funding decisions, like data gathered by community activists, will be included.