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Infrastructure Investments Should Focus on Low-Income Communities

April 4, 2019 at 3:00 PM

As federal policymakers consider investments to address the nation’s pressing infrastructure needs, a core priority should be to direct substantial resources to low-income communities, our new report shows. Decades of policy choices and insufficient public and private investment have made the infrastructure needs of these communities acute, especially in many communities of color where past policy choices affected by racism, combined with continuing racial bias and discrimination, have resulted in a lack of needed economic resources. New investments could expand low-income communities’ access to safe living conditions and economic opportunity, and include:

  • Housing: Preserving and building affordable housing for low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities should be a priority, as well as renovating and making needed repairs in public housing, which faces large backlogs after decades of underfunding and deferred capital repairs and maintenance. Investments can ensure safe and healthy living conditions while preserving or developing affordable housing.
  • Schools: Building and repairing K-12 schools is needed to ensure that students have healthy and safe modern facilities, and the backlogs are substantial. Correcting this neglect would likely boost students’ health and school performance, research strongly indicates.
  • Transportation: Supporting well-designed transportation infrastructure and public transit can boost the economic prospects of underserved communities by expanding access to jobs and other opportunities.
  • Water, air, and environmental safety; preventing and mitigating climate change: Upgrading and replacing degraded and substandard infrastructure, such as by replacing lead pipes and improving wastewater treatment, is needed to ensure safe living environments. Low-income children tend to live in areas most exposed to unsafe drinking water, air pollution, and other environmental hazards. In addition, many low-income communities are at high risk of suffering the most damaging effects of climate change and hence could benefit substantially from actions to avert or ameliorate those effects.

In addition, any financing and investment mechanisms for an infrastructure package should protect low-income households and be designed so that the overall package benefits communities most in need. While some policymakers may be drawn to certain public-private financing mechanisms such as tax credits or loan subsidies, those approaches tend to be less cost effective than borrowing at the relatively low interest rates available to the federal government, especially for the types of projects with the highest promise of delivering substantial benefits to low-income communities. They also risk giving windfalls to private investors for projects that would have happened anyway or prioritizing projects with commercial returns over those that deliver public benefits, and in many cases would likely bypass communities most in need.

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