Commentary: Why Infrastructure Is a Social Justice Issue

Commentary: Why Infrastructure Is a Social Justice Issue

When you think of infrastructure, you probably think of roads, bridges, and highways — not social justice. But there’s a growing group of city officials, community leaders, activists and academics that are calling on us to transform the way we think about this important issue. Infrastructure is about something bigger than construction: It’s a fundamental issue of equity and opportunity.

Published December 18, 2015

When you think of infrastructure, you probably think of roads, bridges, and highways — not social justice. But there’s a growing group of city officials, community leaders, activists and academics that are calling on us to transform the way we think about this important issue. Infrastructure is about something bigger than construction: It’s a fundamental issue of equity and opportunity. Hillary Clinton believes that, with the right investments, we have the ability not only to rebuild our roads, bridges and highways, but to take on inequality and help communities that have too often been left out and left behind. The infrastructure plan Hillary just announced would help do that.

The quality of infrastructure disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. Take public transit, where one survey found users are 60 percent people of color. Research shows that access to jobs through affordable transit (or the lack thereof) is one of the most powerful forces for social mobility in low-income communities. But right now, America’s mass transit system is in disrepair — and often doesn’t sufficiently connect to the communities that need it the most. As a result, families and communities that already face the biggest obstacles to success have an even harder time getting to work or school, finding a job or running an errand to the grocery store or the bank. Remember James Robertson, the 56-year-old man in Detroit who walked 21 miles a day to get to and from work because he didn’t have adequate public transit? 

Hillary believes we must do better. Her plan will boost federal infrastructure investment by $275 billion over the next five years — which means building and repairing everything from subway lines and bus systems to advanced grids and more efficient ports. But making the investment is just the first step. If we want infrastructure to play a role in taking on inequality, we need to prioritize investments in low-income communities and communities of color. And we need to change the way we make these investments.

First, we should involve communities in the infrastructure decisions that affect their lives. People who live in a community day in and day out are the best experts when it comes to the needs of that community. Too often, local voices are overlooked when city officials decide what projects to fund or where to place transit routes. Hillary will encourage local governments to work with low-income communities to ensure that these investments are creating transit options that connect the unemployed and underemployed to jobs and opportunity. She’ll build on innovative examples in places like New Orleans, where Mayor Mitchell Landrieu created a working group that brings together local officials, transit representatives, advocacy groups, and experts from local colleges and universities. Together, they passed a “complete streets” policy, which requires infrastructure plans in their city to consider how projects will affect all residents — including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and those with disabilities.

Second, we should create opportunities for hiring local workers on these projects. Good-paying jobs in construction and infrastructure are gateways to the middle-class. Median annual wages for infrastructure workers are about $3,700 more than the national median, and Hillary wants to make sure that these jobs are available where they’re needed most. For example, Mayor Ed Murray in Seattle helped pass a law to require all major city-funded construction projects to hire a share of their workers from the county’s economically distressed communities. And U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has initiated a pilot program that allows jurisdictions to hire local workers on federal-funded transit projects. These communities will now benefit in two ways: infrastructure projects that help repair their city and new jobs that lift up the community.

Third, we should engage minority- and women-owned businesses. Hillary wants to be the “small business president” and will fight to level the playing field. Major construction companies might be the best known, but there’s a good chance local minority- and women-owned businesses are more specialized or integrated in the community. Seattle is experimenting with splitting up projects to give pieces to smaller firms, and, starting this year, the city is tracking how many of its sub-contractors are minority- and women-owned firms. Meanwhile, New Orleans’s transportation agency has recently increased the percentage of federally assisted funding going to these firms from 11 percent to 31 percent in just a few years.

These are just a few ideas we can learn from and build on across the country. If we’re going to be serious about taking on racial justice and expanding economic opportunity in America, we need to come up with innovative solutions. It also means making it a priority across our plans and policies. Smart investments in infrastructure are a great way to do just that.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

Maya Harris is Senior Policy Advisor for Hillary for America.

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(Photo: Steve Pope/Getty Images)

Written by Maya Harris

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