Federal funding equity for communities of color

by Deborah - AbideWell.360LLC
(Montgomery, AL)

Visitor Question: What types of grassroots community advocacy are effective to assure that federal funds to cities and states are equitably distributed to communities of color? We need input, commitment, and accountability from government and elected officials; and the savvy to know when the good 'ole boys are working behind closed doors or how to cut through the politics.

Thank you. Desperate conditions require desperate actions in Montgomery, Alabama.

Editors Respond: Your original title refers to the American CARES Act of 2020 and the federal infrastructure funding found in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. For those who do not follow federal policy and for our readers around the world, the CARES Act was the first massive program to provide coronavirus relief. Its provisions included the first wave of sending checks to all American households during the early days of the pandemic. There was an additional 2021 coronavirus relief package, the American Rescue Plan Act, that you also will want to track.

First, we want to comment that following every past, present, and future expenditure under these huge programs is a full-time job and more for an individual. So we highly recommend that you find out what groups, universities, media, think tanks, and individuals are already doing this work and then stay in touch with them to obtain the latest data. If they are cooperative, enlist their help in assessing whether communities of color are being treated fairly.

Unless you have specific information to the contrary, we would suggest that you investigate the progress of the funding streams in this order: (1) governor's office in your state, (2) transportation-related Metropolitan Planning Organization, (3) your city government's finance department or director, (4) local or state media personalities with a reputation for serious public policy and government performance investigative work, and (5) any professors or research centers in your local universities that are interested in actual current governmental affairs. You'll see some other suggestions sprinkled through our commentary below.

First, let's talk about the coronavirus legislation. In addition to financial help for individuals, the CARES Act set up a Coronavirus Relief Fund to send $150 billion to states, tribal governments, and local governments with a population of more than 500,000. The concept was to give immediate access to money needed to support unanticipated expenses due to the pandemic. States and local governments were given considerable discretion as to what expenses attributable to the pandemic really meant.

It's true that many local governments and some state governments were almost immediately in financial trouble at the start of the pandemic due to dramatic drops in sales tax revenue. In our opinion, the grants to governments were well justified.

However, as is common in crisis situations such as this, there was no effective watchdog mechanism set up beyond the normal resident participation in local or state government decision making. To know whether your city or county or state was spending the money wisely or foolishly (such as one famous example in which a new tennis court was proposed as coronavirus relief), or even spending it at all, you had to be watching what that level of government was doing.

Your state may well have a municipal league, which might be helpful in tracking expenditures. Your best bet though is to hound the finance director or budget official in your city to find out (a) how much money has actually been received, (b) how much money has been spent and for what projects or programs in what locations, (c) whether any federal funding is yet to be spent, and (d) how you can influence any expenditures not yet made.

As is typical for this type of little research project, the finance director or whoever you ask first may refer you to other offices, levels of government, or documents. Follow the trail of these referrals until you find someone who both really knows and really is willing to be transparent with you.

In many instances, even when you have fairly specific information, it will be another tangled web to figure out what benefits come to communities of color and whether funds were distributed equitably. (In our opinion, equitable does not mean equal. You may need much more than equal because in the past, your neighborhoods received far less investment from your city and state.) If benefits went to a specific business, street, or city department, you may be able to infer the racial implications, but sometimes in instances of benefits to individuals especially, there are no data.

Just use your expertise, which you probably have since you are asking such a sophisticated question, to snuff out whether communities of color have been treated fairly.

In the case of the infrastructure act, redressing structural inequities is an explicit aim of the legislation. However, the act funnels money through existing programs and entities, so you will have to track down who allocates funds for streets, bridges, drinking water, stormwater, and sewage issues in your particular location. We should add that at this moment, the federal government is considering a requirement that states set up a point person for infrastructure funding.

Major road projects go through your Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a regional planning commission. In your case it looks like the City of Montgomery houses the Montgomery Metropolitan Planning Organization.

While MPOs are specifically transportation planning entities required by federal law, they often are a source of informal information about how other funding is being handled. They may know who is dealing with drinking water, broadband, and sewage; if not, they should be able to help you find out. Then you will probably have to chase down up to maybe ten other agencies that are allocating funding from the infrastructure act.

This work is well worth doing. Alabama is one of the states commonly listed as having a major problem with straight pipe makeshift sewage systems, in which raw sewage is spewed out onto the ground at the ultimate destination. All kinds of unsatisfactory sewage collection systems may be eligible for the new funding.

That is only one example. Older sections of cities may have lead pipes, also targeted for replacement in the infrastructure act. Many communities of color suffer from a highly unsatisfactory broadband infrastructure, meaning that even if a household is willing and able to pay a high price for the speed that today's internet seemingly requires for children to be able to see school-related videos and submit their homework, the internet provider speeds may not even be possible from providers that serve communities of color.

So we are afraid that the somewhat heartbreaking answer to your question is that it will require quite a bit of investigative work to be able to form even a tentative judgment about whether communities of color are getting their due. We repeat that you need to latch onto whatever organization, reporter, or website seems to be tracking the spending in your state, city, and maybe neighborhood. Then you might have to do your own analysis about the impact on communities of color, although you should try to enlist an energetic reporter, advocate, professor, or intern to dig into that subject.

While getting the money out fast obviously by not setting up new offices is a good goal, the down side of using existing government programs and offices is that it then becomes somewhat difficult and time consuming for citizens to figure out if their own neighborhood is getting its due.

As your original question points out, advocacy on your own behalf often will be needed once you have some data. Don't wait until you have perfect data, but when you have good-enough information, gather your neighbors and fellow advocates to try to assure that communities of color are able to alleviate some of their most severe and specific problems.

You probably know how to do advocacy, but remember that a cardinal rule of effective advocacy is to figure out where the decisions are being made and to avoid spending your time and energy on influencing the people who are not in the driver’s seat. That's why we emphasized doing your research in this answer.

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