Dismantling racial inequities means spending wisely, not just extensively

Dismantling racial inequities means spending wisely, not just extensively
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The scale and scope of President Joe BidenJoe BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News MORE’s recently passed American Rescue Plan and his infrastructure proposal are, as he has been known to say, a big deal. But when it comes to tackling the deep-seated public health and economic inequities in our country, opening up the spigots is the easy part. The hard part is making sure the money actually gets to the people and places that need it most. 

In recent months, op-ed after op-ed has argued that Biden’s approach to tackling the crisis we face resembles President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. And it’s easy to understand why he would follow FDR’s lead. 

But for Black Americans, the New Deal fell short. Yes, it provided millions with a minimum wage, but if you toiled away on a field or worked long hours cleaning a home, you were out of luck. And when you retired? Social Security wouldn’t be there for you either — not because you contributed any less to our country, but because the program was designed to exclude industries that disproportionately employed Black Americans.  


In the decades that followed, Black Americans were consistently left out of federal programs that expanded access to opportunity, from the GI Bill’s educational aid to the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage assistance. This is one of the reasons that, to this day, our country has such a devastating racial wealth gap, which has also led to a racial health gap, resulting in Black Americans living an average of five fewer years than their white counterparts. Half a decade. 

Biden has made it a priority to close the  gaps inflicted on Black America during the previous administration — increasing the percentage of PPP loans going to rural areas and businesses owned by people of color. And he has made equity a focus of his infrastructure plan as well, proposing allocating $20 billion to a program the White House says will reconnect neighborhoods left behind by historic investments. And he’s pledged to replace 100 percent of our nation’s lead pipes, recognizing that millions of Americans still do not have access to clean water.  

But whether the plan reaches those who have historically been underserved will come down to implementation. That is why the Biden administration must couple its investment in infrastructure with technical assistance for communities that need it — whether that means helping smaller nonprofits apply for grants or finding ways to alert them to the fact that they qualify in the first place. Especially since, those grants can help staff up organizations doing some of the most important on-the-ground labor to dismantle inequities on local and regional levels — organizations that might otherwise fly under the radar.  

The Biden administration should also publish open data on where the money is flowing — as the Obama administration did during the Recovery Act — and be willing to revise its approach if investments don’t reach the communities where they’re most needed. We cannot let speed be the enemy of equitable distribution. 

Critics will try to frame this approach as zero-sum: Making sure investments reach predominantly Black communities, they’ll dog whistle, would hurt predominantly white communities. But, the truth is, the racial wealth gap costs all Americans — to the tune of $16 trillion, as a recent study by Citigroup found. So, closing it would also benefit all Americans.  


This not only makes sense but is a huge societal value add proposition. Because when more of us have access to public transportation that is safe and fast; when more of us have money in our pockets to spend; when more of us live in communities where the air is clear and the water is clean and our kids have access to an education that prepares them to enter the workforce, that is to everyone’s benefit: Black Americans and white Americans, small business and multinational corporations. As the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) often said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

And if the government truly began spending in a way that meaningfully reversed the racial wealth and health gaps? Well, that would really be a big deal.    

Michelle A. Williams is dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Angelopoulos professor in Public Health and International Development, Harvard Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School.