Five Ways the Census Impacts Environmental Justice

The Census is a critical tool used by our government to count our population, capture shifting demographics, and allocate funding to communities based on population size. It’s important to be counted in the census because states with larger populations are represented by more legislators in the House of Representatives. 

Population estimates are also used to allocate federal funding to states and local communities for many crucial programs, including wildlife, environmental, and public health programs. However, when communities are undercounted, long-standing disparities in representation and access to services are worsened. With the long term impacts from COVID-19 impacting our most vulnerable communities, we will need increased resources and enhanced infrastructure to help them move from “surviving to thriving.” The Census can play a role in helping make that a reality.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of [all people] with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” To create environmentally just policies, conservation organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and legislators must first acknowledge the disproportionate impact that climate change and pollution have on lower-income and Black and Brown communities compared to wealthier and predominantly white communities. For years, Black and Brown communities have been negatively impacted by pollution and environmental hazards at a higher rate than whiter, wealthier communities—making race and income significant factors in the discussion of environmental justice.

Environmental Justice & the Census

Historically, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately under-counted in the Census. Under counting results in under-representation for those groups in our government, limiting their voices and power in politics. It also perpetuates environmental injustices, as under counting Black and Brown people leads to less funding for environmental programs.

Here are five examples of how the Census can address the disparate impacts of pollution and climate change:

1) Affordable Housing

A full and accurate 2020 Census count is important because Census numbers are used to distribute billions of dollars for affordable housing every year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture provide housing support for low-income people all over the country, including rental housing programs such as Section 8, supportive housing programs for veterans, the elderly and persons with disabilities, and rural rental housing programs.

However, affordable housing is often located in geographically vulnerable areas such as flood zones or areas prone to natural disasters. With climate change exacerbating severe weather events, these communities are increasingly devastated in terms of both physical and financial safety. The pursuit of safe and equitable housing and its overlap with environmental justice brings to light the deeply rooted problems with the racial-wealth divide. Unsafe living conditions and unfair treatment due to race are side effects of a persistent wealth gap, with low-income communities and people of color most impacted by this wealth disparity. 

There is currently a shortage of more than 5 million affordable housing units for low-income families across the country, and only one in four families that qualify for federal assistance currently receive it.

2) Jobs

Studies show that impoverished communities with fewer job opportunities and less opportunity to accumulate wealth also tend to have higher exposure to pollution. Government officials will use 2020 Census statistics to determine how to allocate billions of dollars for critical services, including hospitals, schools, roads, and bridges, which in turn generate job opportunities for these sectors.

Companies also use Census data to determine where to start-up, expand, or relocate, which can mean more jobs in higher represented communities. Historically, minority communities have been undercounted because they disproportionately live in hard-to-count circumstances. Today, more than one in three Black Americans live in hard-to-count census tracts characterized by poverty and higher rates of rental housing. 

Census data can also be a way to identify where to invest in green jobs. Communities at the frontlines of combating climate change need investment in sustainable development and the green jobs that these investments create. The Economic Adjustment Assistance Program is one example of how the Census supports sustainable development and green jobs. This program is funded by Census data and provides assistance for workers, businesses, and communities that are under economic distress. The goals of this program include environmentally sustainable development and strengthening diverse communities that are rebuilding their economies. By ensuring an accurate population count of these communities, we can ensure more job opportunities and federal dollars for previously underrepresented areas.

3) Pollution

Because many communities of color rely on affordable housing and affordable housing tends to be located in geographically undesirable locations, these communities are exposed to increased levels of pollution. Many times they are forced to live next to smokestacks or along polluted waterways. These neighborhoods bear a disproportionate share of environmental burden and are more severely impacted by issues like air and water quality.

A recent study by scientists from the EPA found facilities emitting dangerous air pollution disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. The nation’s air, on the whole, has become cleaner in the past 70 years, but those benefits are seen primarily in whiter, higher-income areas. Despite widespread reductions in air pollution, Black people are still experiencing twice the health risk from air pollution compared to White people. This has a devastating impact on human health, including causing severe asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature deaths. In order to provide adequate funding to address these inequities in air pollution, we need an accurate count of these communities.

4) Water Infrastructure

Access to clean drinking water is important to the health of both people and the environment. Unclean water negatively influences health outcomes for people and the health of ecosystems around these water systems. The Census helps determine where and how billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure needs like water treatment facilities to get clean drinking water to residents. Programs such as Water Pollution Control State, Interstate, and Tribal Program Support and State Underground Water Source Protection are funded through Census data. However, not every household in the U.S. receives clean drinking water. Studies show that there is unequal access to potable water and that this lack of access is driven by race and income disparities.

The Flint water crisis is a quintessential example of racially-driven inequities in water infrastructure and access to clean drinking water. The crisis began when the government attempted to save money on water costs by switching Flint’s water source from Detroit to the Flint River, which was highly contaminated. It is no coincidence that the government tried to cut corners in Flint, a community where 41 percent of residents live below the national poverty line and the majority are Black.

After switching Flint’s water source to the Flint River, tests by both the EPA and Virginia Tech scientists reported astronomical levels of lead pollution in the drinking water, in some cases well past the level needed to classify it as hazardous waste. Lead pollution in drinking water bioaccumulates and can impact the brain and central nervous system, leading to comas, convulsions, and even death. Despite complaints from constituents and studies proving the harmful levels of lead and toxins in the water, every level of the government failed to address the problem.

Michigan health officials only cite 12 deaths due to Legionnaire’s disease caused by lead levels in Flint’s drinking water, but many studies estimate that up to 115 deaths have been caused by the Flint water crisis. This situation highlights how race and income impact access to clean drinking water, as these communities are disproportionately underfunded, undervalued, and dismissed by governing bodies. 

A report released by a task force to study how Flint’s water became poisoned identified the central role that race and poverty play in this story. The report relays that “Flint residents, who are majority Black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.” Data from the Census is used to provide funding for critical programs that oversee and provide clean drinking water to Americans, which is even more important for vulnerable communities like Flint.

5) Hazardous Waste

Hotspots for hazardous waste disposal negatively impact the health of people and the environment alike. Some of these locations are recognized as “superfund sites” through an Environmental Protection Agency program. The Superfund program cleans up abandoned, accidentally spilled, or illegally dumped substances, most of which come from manufacturing businesses and industries. 

Data from the Census allocates funding for Hazardous Waste Management State Program Support, which helps prevent toxic waste dumping and spills. However, toxic waste sites are not dispersed evenly throughout communities. Often, those most at risk of living near them are low-income, communities of color. Studies show that a disproportionate percentage of Black people live near unregulated toxic waste sites. The EPA estimates that in 2016, 16 percent of the U.S. population lived within three miles of a Superfund site. However, 19 percent of all Black people and 23 percent of all Hispanic people lived within three miles of a Superfund site, highlighting these disparities in race and location near hazardous waste.

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Environmental justice is a complex web of interrelated factors, including race, income, public health, political power, and environmental regulation. These examples display how communities of color are forced to bear the brunt of impacts from climate change and how programs funded through Census data are vital to giving these communities fair funding to address this. 

This is why it is so important, especially for vulnerable populations like communities of color, to be counted in the Census. 

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