Editorial: One way Biden can help Black and Latino communities recover
President Biden has repeatedly pitched a massive infrastructure spending plan as a way to create good jobs and address systemic racial inequities. But the president will never be able to achieve those goals as long as the government prohibits using federal dollars to encourage targeted local hiring.
Since the Reagan administration, the federal government has largely barred cities and states from using local hiring incentives or mandates on projects that receive federal funds, such as the construction of public transit lines, water treatment plants or power transmission lines.
That’s made it harder for local agencies to prod the firms building these projects to recruit a portion of their workforce from nearby low-income areas or to target disadvantaged groups that struggle to find employment, such as the formerly homeless, felons or young people leaving the foster care system. The training and skills developed on these projects can help propel entry-level workers into a solid middle-class career.
The rationale for the ban was that local-hire requirements were burdensome on private employers, hindered competition for contracts and raised taxpayers’ costs.
But that rationale was never tested — until the Obama administration created a pilot program in 2015 to evaluate whether local hiring edicts actually hurt competition. Over two years, 19 cities and states were given permission to use geographic and economic-based hiring preferences on federally funded transportation projects.
San Bernardino County was allowed to offer cash incentives to a contractor building a new freeway interchange to hire local residents and veterans. Texas sought to hire residents in an economically distressed neighborhood near a Dallas roadway project. Caltrans wanted to hire residents from the city of Commerce and surrounding areas to help repave a portion of Interstate 5.
The Trump administration abruptly canceled the pilot program in 2017. Nevertheless, by then there were enough data to show that adding local hiring incentives didn’t affect the number of bids or the price of the bids when compared with similar non-local hire projects.
In short, the rationale behind the ban was wrong.
It’s especially urgent to get rid of this flawed regulation now, as the Biden administration and Congress begin to negotiate a $1-trillion-plus infrastructure plan. The construction industry is almost 90% male and mostly white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the federal government is going to pour money into road, bridge, water system, broadband and power grid construction, it is vital that historically underrepresented groups can get a shot at those jobs and career pathways.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg could revive the local-hire pilot program immediately. Even better, Biden could issue an executive order calling for the elimination of this flawed regulation. Congress, too, could pass legislation to enable and encourage local hiring programs.
Every federal dollar should deliver the greatest good. That means building infrastructure, good jobs and an equitable economy.
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