2023: Opportunities for Disadvantaged Communities

by Nayamin Martinez

It’s hard to believe that the first month of 2023 has already ended, but what has not ended are the needs and challenges faced by disadvantaged communities. Which are these communities and why are they called that? What are the challenges, but also the opportunities for these communities? 

While I am not a fan of this term “disadvantaged communities” it is widely used by government agencies to refer and to determine eligibility for funding and programs to communities that suffer from the combination of economic, health and environmental burdens. These burdens include:

  • Poverty
  • High unemployment
  • Air and water pollution
  • Presence of hazardous wastes 
  • High incidence of asthma and heart disease

Are you thinking that many of the communities in Fresno County and other Central Valley counties fit this description? If so, you are right, but if you want to narrow it down to specific names and if you want to know what type of pollution or burden is more prevalent in these communities you can do so by using CalEnviroScreen, an analytical tool created by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CALEPA) that combines different types of data to create a score that determines which communities are most disadvantaged.

The most recent edition of CalEnviroScreen identified in July of 2022 2,310 Census Tracts that fall within the “Disadvantaged” category, of which 124 are in Fresno County.

As depressing and pejorative as this term sounds, there are some advantages and hope for change for the communities that are deemed “disadvantaged” by CalEnviroScreen standards. Such as:

  • Senate Bill 535, directs that at least a quarter of the proceeds of the Cap-and-Trade Program go to projects that provide a benefit to disadvantaged communities and that at least 10% of the funds go to projects located within those communities. 
  • An approximately $100 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA) for projects that advance environmental justice in underserved and overburdened communities across the country. Funding made possible through President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, making it the largest amount of environmental justice grant funding ever offered by US-EPA.
  • In addition, the US-EPA Region-9 released the first draft of its “Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Implementation Plan”. In which outlines what is needed to achieve tangible progress in FY 2023 and beyond for historically overburdened and underserved communities and to ensure fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people developing environmental laws or regulations.

Other government agencies at the federal, state, and regional level also use this “disadvantaged communities” standard to determine eligibility for funding and programs. Such as with:

  • President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative and Executive Order, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, directs that 40% of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to overburdened communities that face disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental impacts. 
  • San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) that uses established residency in a “disadvantaged” community as one of the eligibility requirements to qualify for free air purifiers or other incentives.
  • In terms of state funding, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) announced in January an investment of $125 million in grants that will support projects that advance climate resilience with a focus on supporting communities most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including disadvantaged communities. 

While allocating more funds and programs to the disadvantaged communities is a good first step, it is not enough to remedy a history of unfair treatment of communities, predominantly communities of people of color and/or low-income residents. 

Communities have been subjected to disproportionate impacts from one or more environmental hazards, socio-economic burdens, or both. In addition, many residents have been excluded in policy setting or decision-making processes and have lacked protections and benefits afforded to other communities. Many programs in themselves also fail to identify where exactly these investments are needed the most. As efforts are being placed forward to help these communities, methods to identify the need and gaps in these communities, such as the “Racial Equity Action Plan” of the State Water Quality Control Board that identifies and collects data on how climate change impacts communities especially with BIPOC communities, will certainly change how effective theses efforts are.

Efforts to support disadvantaged communities by promoting environmental justice through policies and programs, are not new, but they are certainly increasing, and we will keep our eyes open to identify and report on those opportunities that can help the 455 disadvantaged communities (census tracts) that are nested in the Central Valley. 

A breakdown of these census tracts by county is provided on Figure 1.

Source: Data obtained from the CalEnviro Screen 4.0