Sometimes it’s easy to forget, with some of the daunting challenges we face, that there are lots of good things happening.
Less than a year ago, the Biden-Harris Administration released their Equity Action Plans, giving federal agencies the directive to boost investment and support for underserved communities. This month, the Domestic Policy Council prepared a report on how implementing that work is going. This week, the president signed a new executive order to embed advancing equity in the purpose, responsibility, structure, and functioning of every federal agency.
Delivering on Equity, Access, and Opportunity for the American People is not something that will get into the hands of every American, and that’s too bad. It shows that the authority that rests in the executive branch can make concrete changes to improve communities and the lives of individuals. The full report is worth reading, but these examples show that federal agency staff (that many people don’t even know exist) are doing the hard work of advancing equity, through everything from implementing new federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, to strengthening enforcement of existing rules, to proposing new rules and implementing Executive Orders.
The Department of Commerce’s Good Jobs Challenge invested $500 million in workforce training partnerships across 31 states and Puerto Rico “to help secure high-quality jobs that include good pay, benefits, and career mobility for an expected 50,000 Americans, prioritizing workers from underserved communities in urban and rural areas.” Nearly $100 million will be available to organizations that help minority and other underserved entrepreneurs seeking capital to grow and scale their businesses.
The Department of Agriculture is administering $3.1 billion in funding to distressed USDA farm loan borrowers and $2.2 billion in assistance to farmers who have experienced discrimination in USDA’s farm lending programs. It also invested nearly $6 billion in socially vulnerable communities, including projects in housing, clean water infrastructure, and high-speed internet.
In response to the legal challenges that halted the Administration’s earlier loan forgiveness program, the Department of Education has proposed an income-driven repayment plan to cut undergraduate loan payments in half. The agency has approved $48 billion in targeted relief to nearly 2 million student loan borrowers and has also proposed new rules to strengthen Title IX’s protections for students against sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault to ensure that women, girls, LGBTQI+ students, and all students can access equal educational opportunity.
The Department of Justice awarded nearly $57 million “to support efforts at the State, territory, local, and Tribal levels to institute more effective and equitable criminal justice policies and practices, including strategies to reform pretrial processes; expand the availability of accessible victim-centered, trauma-informed services for crime victims; and address wrongful convictions.”
The Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Management and Budget are coordinating the Justice40 Initiative, which is working with federal programs to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean water, and other federal investments to disadvantaged communities. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool measures burdens such as legacy pollution and projected climate risk to identify 27,251 geographically-defined disadvantaged communities across the U.S. that can benefit from the Justice40 Initiative.
The White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders released the Administration’s first-ever National Strategy to Advance Equity, Justice, and Opportunity for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders.
In October 2022, the President announced a full, unconditional, and categorical pardon for prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana, lifting barriers to housing, employment, and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions. Since most marijuana prosecutions take place at the state and local level, Biden called on governors to do the same.
The Environmental Protection Agency created the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, adding capacity “to engage with communities with environmental justice concerns to understand their needs, as well as Tribal, State, and local partners; administer climate and environmental justice grants and technical assistance; coordinate across the agency to embed environmental justice into programs, policies, and processes; and proactively ensure funding recipients comply with civil rights laws.”
Is it enough? Of course not—the history of racial and economic injustice is too long and engrained to be upended in a year. And some of what was announced are proposed changes or efforts in their early stages. But it shifts the federal government toward the right direction, and lays groundwork for future positive change.
Photo: President Joe Biden signs one of the 17 Executive Orders he signed on Inauguration Day Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. Those orders included “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)