Taking It for Granted: The Systemic Inequality in Federal Grant Programs for Funding Climate Infrastructure
By Hailie Goldsmith
Hailie is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences; majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and minoring in Hispanic Studies
Each year, the omnipresence of the effects of climate change become harder and harder to ignore. For instance, rising temperatures worsen the day-to-day living experiences of urban residents located in urban spaces subjected to the Urban Heat Island effect—extreme heat conditions that can be attributed to an extensive amount of heat-retaining surfaces, such as roofs and streets, as well as limited green spaces . Other types of extreme weather conditions leave communities devastated and looking for ways to protect their homes and health from disasters wrought by climate change. Besides the toll on human lives, extreme weather events burden U.S. taxpayers with approximately $99 billion due to damage annually . In 2020 alone, 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate-related disasters struck the United States, ranging from severe storms to wildfires . On November 15th, Biden’s administration signed a $1 trillion infrastructure law, H.R. 3684, which was first introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on November 5th .
The goals of the infrastructure law include prioritizing clean drinking water, implementing climate mitigation measures, advocating for environmental justice, improving transport options and systems, and protecting underserved and marginalized communities . Some key provisions of the bill include $7.5 billion for a national network of electric vehicle charging stations and $6 billion for enhancing the nation’s electricity grid reliability and resilience . Moreover, the bipartisan bill also contains the largest investment in public transit in history—$105 billion—and marks the largest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation .
Of the total $1 trillion, almost $50 billion has been allocated specifically for climate protection infrastructure programs to bolster communities’ infrastructure across the U.S. in order to safeguard against the destructive symptoms caused by a changing climate . More formally announced by the White House, the law passed is titled the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) . The “Bipartisan” label demonstrates Biden’s success in gaining approval and support across the political party divide to reinvigorate and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Of the 50 billion designated for climate adaptation plans and infrastructure, it is theorized that Biden reserved at least 40% of it to fund climate-resilient infrastructure for low-income areas, rural communities, and neighborhoods that are predominantly composed of people of color .
This $50 billion will go towards protecting these communities from extreme events such as fires, floods, and droughts—all occurrences resulting from climate change and expected to worsen in severity in the coming years . Also referred to as the “Justice 40 Initiative,” Biden’s revitalizing claim challenges the broader context of the historical tendency for infrastructure funding to favor wealthier, white communities . There is skepticism among policy experts regarding how realistic the intended shift will be, given the imbalance in resources and property values. Additionally, $50 billion, though an impressive amount, does not reach the expected amount of money estimated by the National Climate Assessment, which predicts that “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year” is realistically needed for proper infrastructure guarding against climate change’s effects .
With regards to actually obtaining funding, the infrastructure law funnels billions of dollars into grant programs, which require competitive applications to be submitted by cities and counties to be awarded an adequate amount of funding. The distribution of funding for climate infrastructure projects relies upon which grant applications appear the most persuasive and worthy of receiving the funding. This tends to depend upon the strength of a community’s local officials and their available tools and resources, resulting in a division between affluent communities and lower-income communities . In addition, the opaqueness of available grant programs also inhibits less informed local governments from attempting to obtain funding from grant programs, thereby further exacerbating a gap that forms across divisions of affluence . Moreover, communities whose applications are approved are then required to pay a 25% share of the cost of the project, which presents an unaffordable roadblock for some low-income communities .
Given the inequity of access to funding for this initiative, a significant issue arises: communities that are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change are also the least likely to be able to afford the much-needed infrastructure protections. This issue was staunchly exemplified during the summer of 2021 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced the initial list of winners of a grant program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC). The list was dominated by wealthy, white areas in mainly California, New Jersey, and Washington state . Meanwhile, other towns with a much lower median household income desperately need grants to install flood control barriers, among other urgent infrastructural changes. The initial FEMA-selected BRIC grant recipients were selected under rules chosen by the Trump administration, so Biden’s administration revised the rules in order to explicitly grant more points to applications which intentionally aim to protect disadvantaged communities . With the implementation of the Justice 40 Initiative, BRIC prioritizes aid to disadvantaged communities, which according to FEMA, “may be characterized by variables including, but not limited to: low income, high and/or persistent poverty, high unemployment and underemployment rates, racial and ethnic segregation, particularly where the segregation stems from discrimination by government entities, linguistic isolation, high housing cost burden and substandard housing,” among many other listed criteria .
There are, however, potential solutions to combat this problem. BRIC classifies “Economically Disadvantaged Rural Communities” as “a community of 3,000 or fewer individuals identified by the applicant that is economically disadvantaged, with residents having an average per capita annual income not exceeding 80 percent of the national per capita income.” These Economically Disadvantaged Rural Communities are entitled to a cost-share of up to 90 percent federal and just 10 percent non-federal. This discount would slightly ease the burden for communities that cannot afford to pay a 25 percent share of funding for projects . Looking further in the future, a possible solution to the obstacles presented by competitive grant programs would be to eliminate the need for grant applications altogether and instead directly identify and provide funding to the towns and cities deemed most in need of financial assistance—those towns that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and also the most lacking in wealth and resources .
Bypassing the selective and unfair federal grant programs enables a more equal playing field for towns and counties across the U.S. to obtain funding for climate-adaptive infrastructure. However, this likely will not be possible due to the bureaucratic limitations of federal agencies and their lack of willingness to expend the time and effort to actively search for worthy candidates desperately in need of funding. Therefore, the status quo of grant programs might remain in place for some time, so, at least for now, Biden’s administration should focus on realizing and executing a more equitable grant-awarding process.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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