No-cost solar panels are installed on the rooftop of a low-income household in California.

No-cost solar panels are installed on the rooftop of a low-income household in California. Mario Tama via Getty Images

State workers fear federal grants won’t reach many disadvantaged communities

Amid historic federal investment in climate and environmental initiatives, employees tasked with distributing federal grants say they are overwhelmed and don’t have the bandwidth to ensure underresourced communities get the help they need.

State workers around the country who are tasked with administering hundreds of different federal grant programs told researchers that they are overwhelmed just with keeping track of and understanding the reams of documents coming from federal agencies.

Still, they said they believed they would meet President Joe Biden’s target of ensuring that 40% of climate and environmental grants go to disadvantaged communities—even as they worried that many of these places would miss out.

“We don’t have the capacity to get out there and talk to communities like we need if we’re going to get them benefits,” one state worker told researchers from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, Climate XChange and Beech Hill Research.

The researchers this spring and summer interviewed 16 state program managers who administer grants in a range of areas, including for environmental, energy and transportation programs. A recent report summarizing those interviews highlights a fear by “nearly all interviewees … that smaller and lower capacity communities will be left behind in terms of this funding.”

“In our interviews,” the report said, “we found that state staff are committed to reaching the underresourced communities prioritized by Justice40, but frequently run up against barriers.”

Indeed, the program managers interviewed “barely have the bandwidth to get the funding out the door to the people who need it,” said Kristen Soares, the state climate policy network manager at Climate XChange, and one of the report’s co-authors. “They don't have the bandwidth to do all of the extra work that goes into building relationships with underserved communities—even letting those underserved communities know about the opportunities.” 

Interviewees reported feeling “backlogged and overwhelmed with written communication and federal guidelines, and need streamlined—and less—material,” the report said. “State staff are regularly experiencing information and webinar ‘burnout.’”

Making matters worse, Soares said, is that the most underresourced and disinvested communities have no capacity to understand what this funding is going to apply to, or to manage budgets. “We'll meet [President Biden’s Justice40 initiative] quantitatively,” she said, “but I'm not sure if we're actually getting funds to communities that have previously not gotten funds.” 

What would help state workers would be for states to hire what are known as “circuit riders” and “navigators” who would be tasked with letting smaller, disadvantaged communities know about the funding that is available.

But an issue with hiring navigators and circuit runners, state workers told researchers, is that it’s unclear if they can use the federal grants for them.

Still, navigators would be helpful, the workers said, because for the most part states only know the local officials and community groups who reach out for funding. “We have some connections and relationships we’ll be using,” one worker said. “But we haven’t made all the relationships we need. We’re not in all the spaces we need to be.”

An example of what state workers would like to see, the report said, is an effort by environmental groups, government agencies and activists in Maryland called Envision the Choptank. As part of the effort to support oyster reef health and to restore water quality in the Choptank River, the partnership hired a technical assistance circuit rider to “‘go around to [communities in] the entire watershed, figure out which grant proposals they need to develop, where things need to be.’”

Federal staff have been helpful in answering state workers’ questions. “However, they fear they are missing details or opportunities,” the report said. “Interviewees’ general sense from federal agencies is that more specific guidance is often forthcoming—which for some state staff has the unintended effect of creating a ‘waiting game’ that delays planning.”

The state workers interviewed also raised several other concerns about the data the Justice40 initiative is using. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool released as part of the initiative, for instance, “fails to identify communities they know to be underserved.” 

“When you’re a local, you look at [the screening tool] and you say, that’s not a disadvantaged community,” one state worker told researchers. “When we compare that with communities that have experienced redlining, people are like, ‘This is definitely a disadvantaged community. How did that not get included?’”

The concerns mirror those from environmental justice groups who say the tool misses the mark. While it considers a slew of socioeconomic and environmental statistics for every census tract in the country, groups say it doesn’t identify the places where residents have been hardest hit by pollution and other environmental harms.

The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which developed the tool, announced on Wednesday that it is asking for suggestions on any changes it should make. In addition, the council said it asked how it can “improve the way it organizes, displays or presents data to be more accessible, understandable and useful for the public, including for communities with environmental justice concerns?”

The report comes as states are rushing to get grant funding out the door. For example, states are trying to build charging stations as fast as possible under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program, while distributing the funding to disadvantaged communities under Justice40.