Image: Montana Conservation Corps crews, made up of high school and college students from the Wind River Indian Reservation, helping Chicago Botanic Garden interns collect seeds for the Seeds of Success program in the BLM Lander Field Office area.
As America’s COVID catastrophe worsens, inflicting a depth of social and economic distress unprecedented in modern times, policymakers have a moral duty to implement a socially and environmentally just recovery, one that rectifies past systemic harms and steers our nation toward a brighter, greener, and more resilient future.
Seven months since the first case of COVID-19 was detected here, our country is reeling. Nearly 170,000 have died from the virus and nearly five million have tested positive, with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities disproportionately affected and dying at significantly higher rates than Whites. Meanwhile, the pandemic and public health measures to slow it have levied an unprecedented shock to the US economy, including the sharpest GDP decline in US history, and 33 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits as the summer began, five times as many as received such benefits at the October 2009 peak of the Great Recession.
Despite the constraints of sharply reduced tax revenue, lawmakers must connect major public policy initiatives and appropriations to two urgent societal needs: fighting the pandemic and laying the groundwork for a transformational economic recovery.
Recent history demonstrates that policy and appropriations directed at economic stimulus work to restore employment and growth. During the Great Recession, Congress passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) that supported Medicaid and unemployment benefits; provided direct aid to individuals; made public investments in infrastructure, energy, education, and health care; and cut taxes. Cumulatively, these measures saved or created approximately six million jobs, and boosted U.S. GDP between two and three percent from late 2009 and mid-2011.
During the first half of 2020, the U.S. Congress passed more than $3.5 trillion in aid packages—the largest amount in U.S. history— in response to economic distress that exceeds that of 2009, and in some ways, even that of the early 1930s. The bills focused spending on support for businesses; hospitals and other health care providers; state and local governments; and direct payments to households. Evidence already indicates the legislation has temporarily mitigated some of the worst impacts.
But the scale of today’s crises means this spending represents little more than first aid: essential to keep the patient alive, but in no way a cure. In combination with the coincident national uprisings against systemic racism precipitated by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the crises reveal deep-seated, chronic conditions tearing at the fundamental cohesion of our nation, including the fragility of our governmental institutions, and lethal inequality and injustice in policing, access to healthcare, and reliable, fulfilling employment.
These grave challenges link directly to environmental policy and the successes—and racist failings—of past efforts to prevent pollution and conserve natural resources. Public health researchers have found a clear connection between the elevated exposure to harmful air pollution suffered by minority communities and the disproportionate mortality from COVID-19 afflicting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. There is an urgent need for large-scale efforts to equitably protect and restore clean air, water, and public lands; conserve biodiversity; and ensure an effective global response to climate change.
Today’s interwoven crises demand significant structural change to the pre-pandemic status quo. Policymakers have a unique—and urgent—opportunity to ease economic distress, rectify longstanding social inequities and harms that have been amplified by the pandemic, and build a healthy, climate-resilient future for all.
Solutions: Where do we start?
Numerous opportunities exist for major investments of public funds in ways that research has shown create tens of thousands of jobs cost-effectively, while yielding outputs with transformative social and environmental benefits. Here are two major areas for state and federal stimulus that can lift up marginalized and pandemic-impacted workers, increase the resiliency and vitality of our communities, and restore the environment.
Invest in equitable recovery and resilience for communities
Stimulus funding by state and federal governments should be directed to ensure that communities, particularly the most vulnerable, can recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and become more resilient to other socioeconomic and climate shocks. The following actions would immediately generate jobs, and also produce long-term social benefits to communities in most acute jeopardy from environmental injustice:
- Broaden workforce development programs that reduce the barriers to employment, expand training opportunities, and provide pathways to higher wages for local community members. A newly-launched job training program in Hawai’i, Kupu ‘Aina Corps, provides temporary paid employment, health insurance, college credits, and the chance to upskill in environmental and sustainability related work. It is designed for those who have been furloughed or unemployed due to COVID-19, or are recent graduates seeking opportunities. This model could be replicated in other states.
- Significantly expand urban greening programs to plant trees, establish and maintain parks and green spaces, and implement nature-based solutions for stormwater management. Such assets improve community well-being and climate resilience by expanding access to nature, filtering pollution, mitigating flooding, and reducing urban heat islands.
- Provide weatherization assistance services through locally hired contractors and crews to help low-income families improve the comfort and safety of their homes, while reducing energy use and saving money. Retrofitting the built environment also creates employment; the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimates that 21 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in efficiency.
- Expand programs that reduce costs and improve access to distributed clean energy and storage, especially in low-income and vulnerable communities. Recent research conducted by the Brookings Institution found that clean energy jobs command higher and more equitable wages when compared to all workers, and many have lower educational requirements, making them broadly accessible to those impacted by the economic downturn.
- Close the water access gap in disadvantaged, rural, and Tribal communities by providing clean drinking water and safe sanitation. According to the US Water Alliance, closing the water access gap nationwide would create more than 1.5 million jobs and generate $260 billion in economic activity.
- Develop community resilience centers that provide uninterrupted delivery of essential social and health resources, emergency response services, electrical power and clean water, cooling, timely outreach services, and other critical needs.
Restoration and stewardship of public lands, waters, and wildlife
Investments in the restoration of our degraded forests, waterways, wetlands, and living shorelines increase the resiliency of our communities as the impacts of climate change intensify, and broaden access to a healthy environment for all. Data from projects funded by ARRA and other government programs show that such investments can also provide significant new employment opportunities to minority, Tribal, and rural communities. Ecosystem restoration projects are labor intensive, rely extensively on workers from construction and logistics trades, and require a diverse mix of both skilled and unskilled labor, making the jobs broadly accessible and socially beneficial. As a result, these projects often outperform many other industrial sectors targeted for stimulus dollars in terms of job creation, making them highly efficient opportunities to restore employment and restart a faltering economy.
State and federal legislators should appropriate significant stimulus funding and associated policies to:
- Restore forests and mitigate wildfire risks. Reforestation and other public land restoration activities directly create 18 jobs per $1 million invested. Forest restoration projects also reduce the risk of future wildfires and avoid billions of dollars in firefighting, damages, and recovery.
- Restore coastal ecosystems. ARRA created approximately 17 direct jobs per $1 million invested across a diverse range of coastal habitat restoration projects, requiring work by an array of trades and labor sectors. Such projects reduce flood risk, enhance wildlife habitats, and restore commercial and recreational fisheries.
- Restore watersheds and rivers. Riparian habitat restoration projects create between 15 and 24 jobs, and generate between $2.1 and $2.6 million dollars for the local economy, per $1 million invested in watershed restoration. An Oregon study found that 80 percent of funds invested in restoration projects stays in the county where the projects are located, bolstering incomes in rural and distressed counties. Research on removal of derelict dams and other river impediments found 10-13 direct jobs are created for every $1 million invested, while restoring habitat for keystone fish species such as salmon and steelhead.
- Conserve, capture, and recycle water. Research on water supply projects showed that $1 million invested in water conservation creates 16.6 jobs; $1 million invested in stormwater capture projects creates 13.1 jobs; and $1 million invested in water recycling projects creates 12.6 jobs. Such environmentally sound investments stimulate local economies, expand employment in a growing industry, and reduce water consumption, a critical need in increasingly drought-prone Western states like California.
- Investments in wildlife conservation preserve invaluable natural heritage for future generations and sustain the ecosystems we all depend on. Public investments to restore and reconnect wildlife habitat also put people to work, and can pay for themselves by reducing traffic accidents, saving life and property. Stimulus funding can also help implement state, territorial, and Tribal-led conservation strategies and wildlife action plans, supporting outdoor recreation and tourism, and helping species adapt to climate change.
- Remediate abandoned mines and mine lands. A University of Montana study estimated that 10.97 direct jobs are created per $1 million invested in mine-related restoration, along with $2.59 million in total economic activity for surrounding communities. California has more than 47,000 sites identified under the federal Abandoned Mines Lands Program. Cleaning up a century of degraded mine lands in California and nationwide could create thousands of jobs, reduce public safety hazards and chronic sources of waterborne toxic contamination, and expand recreational opportunities on public lands and waters.
Today’s unprecedented confluence of crises necessitates unprecedented imagination and boldness among leaders in government, nonprofit and community organizations, and philanthropy. If we are to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and address the underlying causes of its catastrophic fallout, leaders must design and implement major investments that equitably rebuild our country’s infrastructure and social safety nets, conserve and restore lands and waters, and generate concrete, meaningful economic opportunities for all Americans. The pandemic laid bare that our pre-COVID status quo was untenable; recovery can usher in a new era of sustainability, resilience, and justice.