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Stimulus Should Target Low-Income Urban Areas

Submitted by News Desk on Mon, 01/26/2009 - 12:23pm

The $700-plus billion recovery package being hashed out in Congress has tremendous potential to revive the American economy. But if it moves ahead as designed, I fear it will also further entrench many long-standing inequities of American life.

Advocates for working families welcome Washington's long-overdue interest in our national infrastructure. President-elect Barack Obama and congressional leaders are right to spotlight the deplorable conditions of our roads and bridges.

But potholes on mega-highways are far from the most consequential infrastructure shortfalls facing America.

In low-income urban neighborhoods and rural areas across America, residents are facing the dramatic crumbling of their schools, water lines and public transit systems - the very lifeblood of these communities. This is not simply a matter of inconvenience. Communities like Richmond, West Oakland and San Francisco's Visitacion Valley are being literally cut off from true economic and social opportunity.

Though the list of possible projects released this week by House leadership offered some reason for hope, it still may not go nearly far enough to truly address the challenges of low-income Americans. Instead, one of the biggest federal spending packages the nation has ever seen will largely be used to build more highways to the exurbs - missing an historic moment to make a nation that is more competitive, more inclusive and more rich with opportunity.

It doesn't have to be this way.

This recovery package can and should invest in the nation's human capital and rebuild communities that have been forgotten for too long already. If we do it right and reform now, this package could be a once-in-a-generation tool to fight poverty and expand opportunity.

First, we must resist the urge to spend this money quickly for sheer sake of speed. The shovel-ready projects now targeted in the recovery package are primarily clustered in higher-income suburbs that had the funds to do the intense prepwork for these projects beforehand. Low-income communities did not have that luxury.

Second, we must create targeted criteria to guide infrastructure investments to ensure they actually create jobs for those who need them, promote economic opportunity in distressed communities, foster environmental sustainability or meaningfully address other pressing community needs.

Third, we must completely reform who gets to make these spending decisions. The current recovery package would pass the vast bulk of the federal dollars to state departments of transportation, which have long been beholden to suburban and highway-centric concerns. Instead, a sizable portion of the funding should go to metropolitan planning organizations or other local entities that can work with low-income residents to come up with the most efficient and effective ways to invest these dollars.

Fourth, we must direct investments in ways that make communities stronger. For example, federal transportation funding favors highways over public transit, with $80 going to highways for every $20 that goes to public transit. This encourages sprawling regional growth patterns, drawing people, jobs and capital out of cities and older suburbs. A more equitable 50/50 split between highways and transit would greatly benefit the low-income people who rely on transit for mobility and the cities and older suburbs where the majority of the transit infrastructure is located.

The recovery package promises to be a tremendous boon for the American economy. But it also must lift up American workers and families. I hope White House and congressional leaders take the time to ask themselves, "Will these investments benefit those who need help the most?"

Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, an Oakland-based national research and advocacy organization advancing economic and social equity.