Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
January 17, 2022
Each year, we pause on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to measure the progress America has made towards the realization of his Dream. For many communities - whether minority, Appalachia, tribal, urban, or rural - the dream of an inclusive social and economic infrastructure is still not yet a reality. Sadly, neighborhoods with streets named after Dr. King remain highly segregated, have lower educational attainment, and poverty rates are nearly double the national average, according to a study published in the GeoJournal.
I grew up in a segregated, textile town in South Carolina and remember the days when the school bus had to travel down dirt roads to pick up students. Times have changed and we have made progress. Most of our roads are now paved, allowing us to safely get to schools, jobs, grocery stores, banks and hospitals.
But existing disparities in public infrastructure continue to have profound costs on communities of color. Decisions on highway placement in decades past continue to separate minority neighborhoods from commercial districts. Today, fewer transit options and longer commutes from minority neighborhoods to job centers can make it more difficult to maintain employment and balance family obligations. Black, Latino, and Native American people are more likely to live in homes without clean drinking water, impacting both health and the cost of living. Households of color are also more likely to live near toxic Superfund cites in need of cleanup, impacting health, property values, and local economic opportunities.
The historic bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act recently signed into law by President Biden provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our nation’s core infrastructure.
The law includes $351 billion for highway programs and $91 billion for transit programs. As local, state, and federal leaders decide which projects to fund with this historic level of investment it is critical that they prioritize transit projects that shorten long, multi-stop commutes between minority communities and job centers; fix highways that bifurcate neighborhoods; and improve road quality and capacity to improve economic opportunity for minority communities.
When it comes to the environment, the bill includes $21 billion to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land and cap orphaned oil and gas wells.
If we hope to close opportunity gaps, we must do more than making up for the lack of investment in the past, we must ensure that minority communities have access to the infrastructure of the future. Few things are as important to education, job creation, and economic opportunity than access to high-speed broadband internet. Through $42 billion for broadband equity, access and deployment, we can close internet access gaps that if unaddressed will hold back minority communities in the years to come.
Finally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes provisions such as codifying and strengthening the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) to ensure more minority-owned businesses connect with opportunities to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure as prime and sub-prime contractors, planners, designers, architects and engineers. Streamlining procurement processes, simplifying government lending programs and unbundling large contracts will help these enterprises be even more competitive and create jobs in the communities where they exist. Major corporations can also play a role in ensuring that minority-owned businesses have a seat at the infrastructure table by increasing sub-contracting opportunities and enhancing access to much needed capital, credit and bonding.
Closing the opportunity gaps in infrastructure won’t just benefit minority communities, they will make our whole economy stronger. In its Business Case for Racial Equity, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation notes that our economy stands to gain $8 trillion by 2050 by eliminating racial inequalities across our society. Though there have been improvements in recent years, Black unemployment is still twice that of white Americans. In addition, 19% of Black Americans live below the poverty level, compared to 7% of white Americans. An equitable infrastructure program can create higher paying jobs and help close the wealth gap. It is not only a moral imperative, but a matter of our economic competitiveness.
Now is the time to make real the dream of Dr. King – a modern, inclusive infrastructure to provide the economic growth and quality of life that all communities deserve.