The health of our communities is not negotiable

The health of our communities is not negotiable
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A high-stakes fight is afoot over the size of President BidenJoe BidenCDC chief clarifies vaccine comments: 'There will be no nationwide mandate' Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden urges local governments to stave off evictions MORE’s infrastructure package. This week, Senate Republicans responded to Biden’s plan by proposing to eliminate new investments in clean energy, healthy buildings, care for the elderly and good manufacturing jobs. The message is clear: We will not “Build Back Better” by trying to appease politicians who negotiate away our wellbeing. 

Right now, hanging in the balance are the livelihoods of over 15 million unemployed workers, the security of communities facing this year’s intensifying droughts and hurricanes, and the health of Black, Indigenous and Latinx families in pollution hotspots who deserve clean air and water. 

Compromise is part of political reality. But you cannot negotiate with the physical reality of the climate crisis, the economic reality of mass unemployment and the structural reality of systemic racism. Big crises require big investments.  

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Congress and the White House should move beyond Republican leadership’s open obstructionism and deliver an infrastructure package as large as our communities’ needs.  

The difference between a large recovery package and a small one is whether we improve living conditions for over 2 million public housing residents or ask them to stay in unhealthy homes that are vulnerable to climate disasters. It’s whether we replace over 60 million gas cars with affordable, union-built electric vehicles or keep the gas guzzlers and ask families who live near highways to accept high rates of asthma. It’s whether we clean up dozens of polluted Superfund sites or ask the 21 million people who live near one to continue coexisting with toxic air and water.  

What scale of investment would address such dire needs? Economic modeling shows that by investing $1 trillion per year for a decade, Congress could create over 15 million good jobs and achieve full employment, meet Biden’s goal of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030 and meaningfully curb racial, economic, gender and environmental injustice. 

That topline number is the sum of 53 investments that span the economy — each one designed to fully rectify a major societal challenge, such as replacing all lead pipes or upgrading all public schools. At least half of these investments should go to frontline communities who’ve endured decades of divestment due to redlining, exclusion and structural injustice. 

Over 60 percent of voters, more than 50 members of Congress and over 100 leading union, racial justice, climate and other grassroots groups support this transformative investment plan, as outlined in a new bill called the THRIVE Act. Now, it’s on Congress to align its level of ambition with the unyielding requirements for our communities to thrive. 

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Take public transit, for example. Each year, over 20,000 people in the U.S. — predominantly in Black and Latinx communities — die from air pollution emitted by gas vehicles, while transportation is the largest source of our country’s climate pollution. 

Part of the solution is to expand access to clean, affordable and electrified public transit. Congress should build on Biden’s initial proposal and take up Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) plan to invest $500 billion to fully electrify our public buses and commuter rail, while also expanding public transit access. Doing so would prevent over 4,000 deaths from air pollution, cut over 21 million tons of climate pollution and create about 1 million family-sustaining jobs. 

Investing at scale also would help prevent disastrous grid failures like the one that killed over 100 people in Texas this past February when a cold snap knocked out power for over 4 million homes. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we should invest over $2.5 trillion — about four times as much as in the initial American Jobs Plan — to upgrade our long-neglected electricity, water and transportation infrastructure from a disaster-prone “C-” to a passable “B” grade. Doing so would create nearly 5 million good jobs while supporting health and safety in communities nationwide. 

While Congress mulls the scale of the economic recovery package, one factor should be front and center: the millions of humans whose lives and livelihoods depend on the topline number. Our communities are counting on Congress to move beyond political hand-wringing to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more just economy.  

Ben Beachy is the director of the Living Economy program at the Sierra Club.