Now for the hard part…

Alan Jenkins

Two weeks ago in this column I called for equal opportunity guarantees in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Ensuring equal and expanded opportunity for all, I argued, will be crucial to a broad and lasting economic recovery that upholds our nation’s values.

I’m happy to report that, while the legislation did not include these specific protections, the Obama Administration included them explicitly in it’s Office of Management and Budget’s instructions to federal agencies on their implementation of the Act. That’s a policy-wonky way of saying that the Administration is holding itself accountable for ensuring that recovery investments promote equal opportunity.

This is a momentous development after eight years in which the federal government ignored or actively subverted our equal opportunity laws, including brazenly suspending many of them in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. But now comes the difficult part—upholding equal opportunity in practice in the face of enormous practical and political pressures.

The challenges are many. First, there is a legitimate need for rapid implementation of the recovery package to save and create jobs and restore confidence and security to the American people. Some states like New York are already announcing priority projects that will receive the funds. And the pressure on the Administration to ease its oversight role over these decisions will be tremendous.

Second, the tier of the federal government responsible for upholding equal opportunity laws is largely not yet in place. This includes the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, who is the appointee most central to ensuring equal opportunity in federally supported projects. And in agencies like the Departments of Transportation that are responsible for overseeing recovery projects, offices for civil rights are dormant or atrophied after eight years of neglect.

Third, as the New York example suggests, much of the action on recovery spending is happening at the state and local level, yet those governments have few strong protections in place to ensure equal opportunity, and some are implicitly hostile to the idea. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder whether some conservative governors’ reluctance to accept economic recovery funds springs in part from the knowledge that they will be held responsible for ensuring equal and expanded opportunity for all of their states’ communities. For many more states, longstanding patterns of inequality and political neglect will have a powerful self-perpetuating pull. In that environment, many of the projects that local governments hold up as “shovel ready” will frustrate the mandate of equal and expanded opportunity for all.

Finally, there is the challenge facing neglected neighborhoods, community groups, and social justice leaders around the country who are scrambling to understand the massive recovery statute, coordinate with officials on the ground where possible, and press for accountability where necessary. These groups, and the millions of everyday Americans they represent, are unlikely to be “in the loop” when economic recovery decisions are made—and that’s precisely the problem.

Fortunately, effective approaches exist for addressing these multiple challenges in ways that facilitate a swift and lasting economic recovery for all of the nation’s communities. The Administration should quickly create a temporary inter-agency taskforce on opportunity for the first six months of the recovery process. The taskforce would ensure that high level officials in the Administration coordinate across the various agencies distributing recovery funds to ensure that equal opportunity protections based on race, gender, disability, religion, age, and language ability are respected.

This coordination would speed and streamline recovery investments, which would otherwise be subject to multiple reviews by multiple agencies taking place at different times and through disparate methods. And it would greatly reduce the likelihood that civil rights lawsuits would subsequently delay or derail local projects. Six months from now, when Obama’s full equal opportunity enforcement team is in place, the taskforce could sunset and be replaced by a more permanent coordination mechanism at the sub-agency level.

These efforts should be complemented with mechanisms that ensure transparency of decisionmaking at the state and local level, provide clear information to affected communities and civil society groups, and ensure the opportunity for public input. I’ve recommended many times in this column that an Opportunity Impact Statement process be one of those mechanisms, particularly for large, job-creating projects with significant positive and negative potential impacts.

Finally, Americans concerned about equal opportunity in our economic recovery should make use of the resources available to monitor, interpret, and react to governmental plans on this front. These include ProPublica’s helpful Shovel Watch website.

Beyond cyberspace, social justice and community groups should already be seeking meetings with state and local officials to learn about their plans for ensuring equal opportunity, and to insist on accountability and transparency, and to share their own ideas for impactful economic recovery efforts.

Acting now to protect equal opportunity will make the difference between an economic stimulus that temporarily stems the tide and an economic recovery that yields shared and lasting prosperity for our country in a new global economy.

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