By Marc J. Lane
On his first day in office, President Joseph R. Biden acknowledged that our country faced converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism. He saw that our nation deserves an ambitious equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.
The President went on to sign an executive order establishing an equity agenda for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. He proclaimed that affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our government. Because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, the President ordered executive departments and agencies to recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.
By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone. For example, an analysis shows that closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years. The Federal Government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential. Consistent with these aims, each agency was ordered to assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.
Now, more than 90 federal agencies, including all Cabinet-level agencies, are releasing the first-ever Equity Action Plans that lay out more than 300 concrete strategies and commitments to address the systemic barriers in our nation’s policies and programs that hold too many underserved communities back from prosperity, dignity, and equality.
Advancing equity is not a one-year project—it is a generational commitment. These plans are an important step forward, reflecting the Administration’s work to make the promise of America real for every American, including by implementing the first-ever national strategy on gender equity and equality; working to ensure the federal government is a model for diversity equity, inclusion and accessibility; working to deliver environmental justice through the Justice40 Initiative; and working to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
Across the federal government, agencies are taking ambitious action to expand federal investment and support in communities that have been locked out of opportunity for too long, including communities of color, Tribal communities, rural communities, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities, women and girls, and communities impacted by persistent poverty.
The Department of Labor is strengthening the enforcement of our nation’s wage and hour protections to support underserved workers who are the most vulnerable to wage theft and violations, especially women of color, and is in the process of launching a new initiative to address barriers that workers of color face in equitably accessing Unemployment Insurance benefits. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is working to eliminate the racial gap in homeownership, address the disproportionate rates of homelessness among underserved communities, and reduce bias in home appraisals through the interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a comprehensive framework for evaluating the cumulative impacts of pollution on underserved, low-income communities. EPA will also reinvigorate civil rights enforcement to ensure that environmental justice is at the heart of the agency’s mission.
The Department of Transportation is increasing investments in underserved communities by launching a national technical assistance center to provide targeted support with planning, project development, grant applications, and project delivery for communities that face barriers to accessing transportation resources. The Department of Justice is improving language access to its programs so that Americans with limited English proficiency can better report crimes, access services, understand their rights, and otherwise have full and equal access to the Department’s programs and resources.
The Department of the Interior is providing technical assistance to Tribes to help them navigate grant application processes, and partnering with Tribal Colleges and Universities to build capacity for Tribes to apply for funding.
The Department of Commerce is investing nearly $50 billion in broadband infrastructure deployment, affordability, and digital inclusion efforts to help close the digital divide, particularly for rural and Tribal communities.
The Department of Health and Human Services is increasing outreach to communities of color to encourage enrollment in free and low-cost health care, and is addressing the maternal mortality crisis that disproportionately impacts Black and Native families, including by working with states to extend postpartum coverage in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Department of Homeland Security is working to ensure that underserved communities are treated fairly in airport screenings by improving systems and enhancing training for officers. DHS is also engaging with and improving underserved communities’ access to grant programs that help counter domestic violent extremism to better address the terrorism-related threat to our country posed by white supremacists and other domestic terrorists. The Department of Defense is advancing the safe and equitable use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to mitigate algorithmic bias by investing in agency-wide responsible AI development and investing in the development of a more diverse AI workforce, including through partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).
The State Department is increasing engagement with partners from underserved racial and ethnic communities, applying new equity analyses, and improving demographic data collection and analysis to better embed equity and gender equality into U.S. foreign policies.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is advancing health equity by further addressing the social and economic determinants of health for underserved veterans, including veterans of color, women veterans, and LGBTQI+ veterans. The Department is also launching a Data for Equity strategy, a veteran-centered model that will synchronize data on health care, disability benefits, and other services to identify and address gaps.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expanding equitable access to nutrition assistance programs and strengthening gender equity by implementing a national awareness campaign and expanding the implementation of online ordering in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program. The Department of Education is advancing college access and college completion by investing in HBCUs, TCCUs, MSIs, community colleges, and other under-resourced public institutions, and supporting schools to raise college completion rates for underserved students. The Department of Energy is ensuring equitable access to weatherization assistance programs so that low-income households have increased access to energy security.
The Small Business Administration is investing in improved technology to increase access to capital for businesses in underserved communities and minority-owned businesses by streamlining program applications and integrating data.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is releasing Earth science data in more accessible formats, and providing free, multi-lingual training on how to use NASA data to help mitigate environmental challenges in underserved communities. NASA will also conduct an analysis to identify and address barriers to awards of its grants to HBCUs and MSIs.
The Social Security Administration is identifying inequalities and addressing systemic administrative barriers to participation in key safety net programs, such as disability benefits, and ensuring equitable service delivery for unrepresented individuals navigating the disability application appeals process, and increase gender equity in its services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is closing the flood insurance gap to increase the financial resilience of flood-prone, low-income households. FEMA is also promoting equitable outcomes for disaster survivors by increasing eligibility for and access to assistance programs for underserved and vulnerable applicants.
Embedding Equity in the Everyday Business of Government
In addition to prioritizing greater equity in the services the federal government provides the American people, Agency Equity Action Plans also contain innovative new strategies to embed equity, racial justice, and gender equality in day-to-day governing. These approaches include:
As the Biden Administration’s agencies and departments roll out their Equity Action Plans, let’s do all we can in the private sector to follow suit. In this age of Covid, racial reckoning and the existential threat of climate change, companies large and small need to revisit their Corporate Social Responsibility agendas to ensure that marginalized people and underserved communities are no longer held back from prosperity, dignity, and equality.
The Law Offices of Marc J. Lane, P. C. helps companies develop and implement CSR initiatives that serve the public good while making good business sense. If you’d like to explore the possibilities, please reach out to Marc Lane in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312/372-1040.