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How infrastructure has historically promoted inequality

It’s no secret that U.S. infrastructure is struggling. This year’s report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a C-, citing public roadways in “poor or mediocre” condition, “structurally deficient” bridges and aging power grids.

But what has historically received less attention is the role infrastructure construction and maintenance have played in promoting inequality and racial segregation.

“There is racism physically built into some of our highways,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with the Grio this month.

That recognition shaped President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan to improve U.S. infrastructure. In addition to fixing highways, bridges and roads, the proposal calls for an investment of $20 billion into communities that have historically been hurt by infrastructure projects. It would also provide $45 billion to replace lead pipes and service lines in communities like Flint, Michigan, as well as billions to expand broadband access and affordable housing options.

“I think that the conversation we’re having now about race, inequality and infrastructure at this level is new, and to me that’s encouraging,” said Eric Avila, an urban cultural historian and professor at UCLA.

Fifty-six percent of Americans support Biden’s infrastructure plan, according to a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. Yet the package faces opposition from Republican lawmakers critical of its far-reaching provisions and proposed increases in corporate taxes to fund them.

But advocates hope the attention on Biden’s plan will foster more conversation about the real history of inequity in American infrastructure and possible solutions.

Infrastructure as a relic of racism and classism

One of the clearest examples of inequity in infrastructure is the interstate highway system.

The 1956 National Interstate Highway Act authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highway stretching from coast to coast in the largest public works program ever undertaken.

But when it came to where those highways would be built, many communities of color were uprooted to make way for construction, Avila said. In a 2016 speech at the Center for American Progress, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the first two decades of the federal interstate system displaced 475,000 families and more than one million people.

One of those affected communities was Overtown, an economically and culturally vibrant Black neighborhood in Miami where about 10,000 people were displaced in order to build a section of Interstate 95. In a 2020 Vanderbilt Law Review article on the subject, New York University law professor Deborah Archer said the destruction of Overtown was the culmination of a decades-long effort by local white business owners to move Black residents out of the area with the hopes of expanding their own business district.

MORE: How President Biden plans to make racial equity a part of his infrastructure package

“The interstate highway system did not cause all the problems facing urban communities,” Archer wrote. “However, its construction compounded discrimination and exploitation and triggered a process that weakened urban neighborhoods, from which they have never fully recovered.”

Similar displacements have resulted from the construction of airports and urban renewal projects that in some cities drove up the cost of housing and pushed out existing community members. In other cases, communities of color and low income areas were cut off from access to opportunities or necessities like clean water.

In the late 19th century, Los Angeles officials quietly bought up land and water rights about 200 miles away in Owens Valley, a region home to farmers, ranchers and indigenous people. In 1913, the city completed an aqueduct that siphoned water for Los Angeles from a lake in Owens Valley that is now mostly dried up and has been a source of toxic dust storms for nearby residents. Cut off from a major water source, the community’s agricultural economy sank.

Research also indicates that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are most likely to be targeted for hazardous waste sites. All of these factors affect physical and economic well-being for historically marginalized populations.

The effects of poor infrastructure and looking beyond roads and airports

Safe, reliable infrastructure can have a significant effect on the well being of a community.

“Infrastructure is the physical framework upon which the U.S. economy operates, and our standard of living depends,” the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in this year’s report. “This framework enables us to move goods, power businesses of all sizes, connect people to jobs and services, heat and cool office buildings, and enjoy a glass of clean water.”

The organization determined that without more investment to improve infrastructure throughout the country, each U.S. household stands to lose an average of $3,300 in disposable income every year through 2039. This loss of wealth manifests in different ways, said Steven Pressman, an economics professor with emeritus Professor of Economics and Finance, Monmouth University.

For example, poor roads can damage cars and leave drivers paying for the added expense of repairs. And proximity to health hazards like waste sites lead to higher health care expenses. While poor maintenance of infrastructure can cost Americans, the construction of new infrastructure has the potential to benefit them. Having public transportation lines nearby can significantly raise property values, for one. Rail transit and bridges can enable people from underserved groups to travel to better paying jobs or to obtain different services, said Daniel Armanios, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

In one 2020 study, Armanios and his co-researcher determined that communities in Pennsylvania with more people of color and single-parent families tended to have fewer bridges. The bridges that existed were more likely to be “restrictive” or low-clearance, which can obstruct the influx of business goods and transportation services.

Biden’s infrastructure plan budgets more than $600 billion for roads, bridges, rails and ports. It would also invest in programs that aren’t typically included in infrastructure packages, but that seek to address some of the inequities of past infrastructure decisions.

The plan includes $100 billion for workforce development to assist dislocated or underserved individuals, $25 billion to upgrade and build new child-care facilities, and $400 billion to support caregiving for older people and those with disabilities, which would include wage increases for home health workers, a disproportionate number of whom are women of color.

The plan would also fund clean energy initiatives to address climate change. In 2018, researchers from Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh determined that natural disasters widen racial wealth gaps. That same year scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency examined exposure to an air pollutant linked to higher risks of lung and heart disease. According to the report, Black people overall are exposed to 1.54 times more of the pollutant PM 2.5, compared to white people. People of color overall are exposed to 1.28 times more of the pollutant and poor people are exposed to 1.35 times more.

MORE: America’s infrastructure is crumbling. What should be prioritized?

Critics of the social policy aspects of the plan say it falls outside what people recognize as infrastructure. The Republican National Committee is describing the proposal as a “Trojan horse for far-left progressive policies.”

Others say there’s a more holistic way to look at infrastructure. “It’s not the sorts of things that are traditional infrastructure, but they have the same impact,” Pressman said. “They have effects that improve the productivity of workers, that improve the nation, that yield a whole lot of tax revenue to the government in the future when people are making more money.”

For example, research indicates that affordable, quality child care would improve the economy by allowing more parents to stay in the workforce.

As the congressional battle over Biden’s plan continues, equity advocates will be watching.

Armanios of Carnegie Mellon University said he hopes the Biden administration applies metrics to track investments made directly to communities most in need.

Aspects of Biden’s plan, like funding for housing and workforce development, appear to reflect conversations between the administration and groups that do this work on the ground, said Irma Esparza Diggs, the director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities.

“It is about proposing a vision [and] being intentional at every level of government to implement public policy and direct federal funding so that you can really target resources where they are needed,” Diggs said.

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