It’s not conjecture to say that Black communities throughout the United States are dealing with a water crisis. Just look at Jackson, Mississippi, where aging water structures coupled with extreme weather events have led to frequent and disastrous shut-offs.
With an influx of infrastructure funding flooding in, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, hope that things could improve feels within reach. But that hope relies on states actually spending infrastructure money on the communities that need it most.
Unfortunately, an October study from the Natural Resource Defense Counsel throws cold water on that optimism. According to the report, Black communities are less likely to receive water infrastructure funding than white communities. And what’s worse, if nothing changes, the same trends could hold up for this new infrastructure money.
The study looked at the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program, which is the primary way federal wastewater infrastructure funds get distributed by the states, explains Becky Hammer, a co-author of the report.
After poring over ten years of data from the program, Hammer said that they discovered a small but significant correlation between the number of white people in a community and the likelihood that the community would receive funding.
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“On the flip side, a community with a larger non-white population would be less likely to receive funds,” says Hammer. “And so, at the same time, we know that communities of color, and specifically Black communities are often the most in need of assistance to address infrastructure challenges; these results are the opposite of what we would hope and expect to see through this program.”
Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, says that these findings aren’t shocking.
“It is no surprise that minority communities receive the short end of the stick when it comes to government funding,” wrote Coleman Flowers in a statement. “While part of the goal of this water infrastructure funding is to deliver equitable investment to low-income minority communities, the fact of the matter is that there is a history of these communities struggling to access these resources even though they are disproportionately impacted.”
Hammer says that unless Congress or the Environmental Protection Agency put up guardrails for how states spend these funds, we’re likely to see these funding disparities continue.
“The funding that is coming into the program from the bipartisan infrastructure law,” says Hammer. “It is going out to the states with the same set of policies that produced the results we found in our study…those policies are still in place and are still continuing to guide the funding decisions that each state is making.”
The current formula used by states to determine where to spend money is inherently “problematic,” says Sacoby Wilson, a Professor of Environmental Health at The University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“The state revolving funds are problematic because they’re not taking into account historical and contemporary racism,” says Wilson, adding that the data used to make these calculations is often flawed.
“So you have bad data in and bad policy out,” he says.
Waikinya Clanton, Southern Poverty Law Center Director of Mississippi, says that discrimination needs to be addressed so that the new infrastructure funds can reach the places that need them most. “It is imperative that this form of discrimination is recognized and that federal, state, and local governments ensure a fair process to distribute allocated money to communities in need,” said Clanton in a statement.
According to Coleman Flowers, state and federal officials need to work directly with impacted communities to correct these mistakes.
“Oftentimes the solutions being brought to these communities don’t take into consideration the long-term impacts of climate change, causing the same infrastructure failure to occur further down the line,” wrote Coleman Flowers. “Given that these communities tend to bear much of the load of climate impacts, they require solutions that are resilient and able to be implemented quickly to prevent further degradation.”