Research Report Advancing Equity, Climate Action, and Economic Health in Communities
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Challenges and Opportunities for the Justice40 Initiative
Samantha Fu, James Ladi Williams, Anna Shipp
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Created through President Biden’s Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” Justice40 is an initiative of the federal government that aims to deliver 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal investments to communities identified as “disadvantaged” based on factors such as exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards, vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, and levels of socioeconomic distress.

Advocates see in Justice40 a historic opportunity to generate transformative change in marginalized, overburdened, and underserved communities. However, they also caution that achieving Justice40’s ambitious goals hinges on how the initiative is implemented. The Urban Institute’s Equity in Place project seeks to support Justice40’s success by highlighting the challenges and opportunities the initiative faces and by recommending ways to ensure its successful implementation.

Our work began in early 2022 with a scan of the initiative’s official guidance and supplemental reports to build an understanding of Justice40’s framework, vision, and goals. We then conducted scoping interviews with representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, and nonprofit organizations across the country engaged in policy, capacity-building, and technical-assistance work with some of the communities that Justice40 intends to benefit. We also attended virtual public meetings hosted by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Through these activities, we sought to learn about stakeholders’ understanding of Justice40 and gather insights on what conditions need to be met for the initiative to succeed in delivering benefits to underserved communities. Following the interviews, we held two convenings with leaders from many of the nonprofit environmental justice organizations we interviewed as well as a few others. The first convening focused on validating and refining our synthesis of insights gathered from the interviews; the second focused on understanding stakeholders’ visions for Justice40 and on articulating the principles and specific actions needed to make that vision a reality.

This paper distills Urban’s understanding of the contemporary Justice40 landscape and presents five main themes that emerged from our synthesis of advocate and community viewpoints:

  1. Identifying, engaging, and prioritizing communities. Improvements in how communities are identified, engaged, and prioritized would enable Justice40 to simultaneously advance equity, climate action, and economic health.
  2. Program design and funding structure. Changes to program design and funding structure could help make Justice40 funding more accessible to the “disadvantaged” communities it is intended to benefit.
  3. Defining and measuring benefits. A clear definition of “benefits” and how they are measured would help align Justice40’s intent with its impact and support meaningful evaluation of investment outcomes against Justice40’s goals.
  4. Oversight and accountability. A robust, transparent, and equitable accountability structure would help ensure that Justice40 investments at all levels of government deliver the promised benefits to “disadvantaged” communities.
  5. Whole-of-government approach. Increased coordination and collaboration, both horizontally between federal agencies and vertically between federal, state, and local governments could help expand Justice40’s impact and scope.

We ground these five themes within a framework that elevates Justice40’s crosscutting goals related to equity, climate action, and the economy, and provide additional context based on our analysis of the Justice40 policy landscape. This framing paper informs an accompanying and practice playbook, which recommends strategies to address key stakeholder concerns and ensure the successful implementation of Justice40.

Research Areas Climate, disasters, and environment Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Race and equity Economic mobility and inequality
Tags Climate adaptation and resilience Climate mitigation, sustainability, energy and land use Community and economic development Environmental quality and pollution Federal urban policies Place-based initiatives Racial and ethnic disparities Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
Research Methods Qualitative data analysis
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