ECONOMIC RECOVERY ACT FORUM: A Legacy Unwritten

By Alan Jenkins*

At year one, the legacy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is still unwritten. Most economists agree that the Act has created and saved large numbers of jobs, and helped stave off potentially catastrophic levels of unemployment. Given where our economy was a year ago, that is a huge and important accomplishment.

At the same time, it’s evident that, thus far, ARRA has not fulfilled its job-creating potential, has lacked adequate accountability, and has not prioritized equal opportunity. Three problems, in particular, have hampered ARRA’s mission of greater and more equal opportunity: (1) an overly narrow definition of “shovel readiness”; (2) a failure to track job and infrastructure investment at the ground level; and (3) a failure to integrate equal opportunity measures fully into the approval, monitoring, and enforcement processes.

Because ARRA was always intended to be a two-year initiative, however, these shortcomings can still be addressed, in ways that should inform future public investment. First, the Administration and states should prioritize apprenticeships and on-the-job training in 21st century industries, connected to concrete, longer-term employment opportunities. This can be done in conjunctions with the second jobs bill pending in Congress, and will align the dual goals of short-term reductions in unemployment and longer-term job preparedness. And it will erase some of the disadvantages facing low-income, minority, female, and older workers, who disproportionately lack the training to pursue many shovel ready jobs.

Second, the Administration should require and track data on job creation and infrastructure creation much more closely, including the demographics and geography of Americans reached by ARRA-funded projects. This information should be posted on www.recovery.gov, and be part of the ARRA evaluation process.

And third, federal agencies and state and local fund recipients should use an opportunity impact statement (OIS) to assess whether and how ARRA-funded projects would benefit or burden different communities in terms of job creation, transportation, displacement, or environmental hazards. The OIS would aid federal enforcement actions, like the Federal Transit Authority’s halting of stimulus funds to the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission for a project that would have burdened low-income, disproportionately minority bus riders in their efforts to reach jobs and other opportunities.

Incorporating these principles into ARRA implementation now will reap both short and long term benefits. It will help rebuild public confidence in government operations, invest in current and future employment, and fulfill the promise of greater and more equal opportunity that benefits us all.

*Alan Jenkins is Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda, a public interest organization located in New York City. He previously served as Director of Human Rights at the Ford Foundation, managing over $50 million in grant making annually in the United States and eleven overseas regions. He has also served as Assistant to the Solicitor General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Associate Counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

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