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Justice40: Is Your Federal Program Ready?

August 18, 2021

The Biden administration has shown a strong commitment to advancing environmental justice and creating economic opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

This commitment is seen in the new Justice40 initiative, which provides guidance on environmental justice goals outlined in Executive Order 14008 (“Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”, February 2021). The Executive Order creates a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices.

What is Justice40?

The Justice40 Initiative is a key component of implementing the Biden administration’s commitment to equity across the entire federal government. According to interim guidance released in July, the Justice40 initiative sets goals for federal agencies that at least 40 percent of the benefits of certain types of investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

The interim guidance describes a set of required actions, including:

  • Identifying the benefits provided by covered programs.
  • Determining how covered programs distribute those benefits.
  • Calculating how to reach the 40 percent goal and to report on progress toward that goal.

What Federal Programs are Included in Justice40?

The Justice40 Initiative applies to programs that make investments in climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transportation, affordable and sustainable housing, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, critical clean water and waste infrastructure, and training and workforce development related to these issues. Appendix B of the interim guidance delineates 20 agencies with potentially covered programs.

What’s the Timeframe?

Agencies with covered programs must do the following to comply with the Justice40 Initiative:

  • By September 20, 2021:
    • Identify covered programs and describe their benefits.
    • Report program information, including the appropriated and obligated funding.
    • Develop a plan for engaging with stakeholders relevant to the covered program.
  • By December 17, 2021:
    • Submit a methodology for estimating the benefits of covered programs accruing to disadvantaged communities, including:
      • Descriptions of the metrics used to measure benefits.
      • Information on the percent of benefits directed to disadvantaged communities, the percent of benefits not directed to disadvantaged communities, and the percent of benefits for which this information cannot be determined.
      • Geographic information for the distribution of benefits and program funding.
      • The amount of program funding received by disadvantaged communities.

Additionally, Appendix A of the interim guidance lists 21 specific programs that will undertake an initial implementation of the guidance, and are thus subject to a more compressed timeline.

How Can Federal Programs Prepare?

There are four key components to preparing for Justice40:

1. Identifying disadvantaged communities

The interim guidance states that agencies should consider appropriate data, indices, and screening tools to determine whether a specific community is disadvantaged based on a combination of variables. The guidance provides examples of variables that are indicators of a disadvantaged designation, including:

  • low income,
  • high and/or persistent poverty,
  • high unemployment and underemployment,
  • racial and ethnic residential segregation,
  • linguistic isolation, and
  • high energy cost burden and low energy access.

The identification of disadvantaged communities should also consider the objectives and statutory requirements of the program being evaluated. These factors may affect the definition and identification of disadvantaged communities for the evaluations of specific programs. In many cases, census microdata and geographic information system (GIS) data can be used to identify disadvantaged communities and their proximity to environmental hazards. Our colleague T.J. Pepping’s recent blog post highlights how this can be done using available online tools and data sets, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) EJSCREEN environmental justice screening and mapping tool.

2. Conducting meaningful community engagement

A key component of the Justice40 Initiative is seeking input from stakeholders on how they define benefits for covered programs and how the identified benefits can be measured. Meaningful community engagement requires that (1) affected community residents have access and opportunities to participate in the full cycle of benefits identification and assessment; (2) affected community residents are engaged in Justice40 implementation; and (3) agency decision makers seek and consider such participation, allowing the views and perspectives of community residents to shape and influence decisions.

3. Evaluating distributional impacts of programs 

Conducting distributional analysis requires leveraging a range of environmental and demographic data, combined with tools and methods tailored to meet the needs of specific covered programs. Integrating demographic data and physical models provides engaging and interactive tools that summarize the distribution of impacts in or near specific communities, and to households with different socioeconomic characteristics. Distributional analyses also should consider the cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, recognizing that these communities often bear the brunt of several simultaneous environmental and health stressors. For example, Abt helped EPA assess the impacts of a proposed rule to reduce the amount of lead and copper in drinking water by using census microdata to identify the age of homes and resident demographics. Our analysis found that children in minority and low income homes were more at risk of exposure to lead through plumbing and lead service lines in many areas of the United States. These children also have higher blood levels of lead, and are likely to be exposed to lead through more pathways, such as lead paint.

Some benefits of covered programs are not able to be expressed in dollars, or even in quantified terms. In these cases, it is important to supplement quantitative analyses with qualitative information. One challenge, however, is ensuring that qualitative benefits are given adequate consideration alongside benefits that can be expressed in dollars or in quantitative terms. One useful approach is to utilize the framework of triple-bottom-line valuation (TBL). While the application of TBL valuation can vary, one common approach involves converting measurements of progress on  economic, environmental, and social objectives into scores and weights that allow for total scores to be calculated for different program and policy options.

4. Developing strategies to maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities

In order to achieve the goal that 40 percent of the benefits of covered programs flow to disadvantaged communities, agencies will likely need to develop strategies to modify programs, within statutory and constitutional requirements, to maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities. Engaging in an iterative process that includes meaningful community engagement (discussed above) leads to successful strategies that truly benefit disadvantaged communities. Agencies may need to conduct supplemental analyses of alternative program options that can maximize the benefits flowing to disadvantaged communities. For example, in our analysis of EPA’s lead and copper rule, Abt found that funding for low-income households for household-level interventions, such as replacing lead plumbing or installing filters, would lead to a more equitable distribution of benefits of the rule. 

Justice40’s goals are both ambitious and necessary. It’s not surprising that a significant amount of work will need to be done to meet those goals. Developing intentional approaches to identifying disadvantaged communities, conducting meaningful community engagement, evaluating distributional impacts of programs, and developing strategies to maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities will get agencies on the right track to achieving the goals of Justice40.

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