Sources of Environmental Inequity
But before prescribing any remedies for environmental inequity, it is essential that we understand the social mechanisms underlying it. Such mechanisms determine the nature and locus of any injustice, how a policy affects the distribution of pollution across places and population groups, and who bears the costs and who reaps the benefits of cleanups.
Consider just three of the most likely sources of the disproportionate pollution burden borne by disadvantaged groups. First, disadvantaged groups have less political power. Consequently, they may be less successful at lobbying government agencies to block polluting facilities in their neighborhoods. Likewise, they may be less successful at pressuring such agencies to monitor existing facilities for compliance with environmental regulations. Closing the circle, polluting firms therefore may seek out such communities for the very reason that they know they will not be scrutinized so closely. There is some evidence for this mechanism, with pollution increasing in areas with lower voter turnout. If the correlation between pollution and demographics lies in these mechanisms, then it arises from government failures. In this case, either governmental reforms are required—or alternatively, nongovernmental mechanisms for determining pollution patterns should be considered.
Second, disadvantaged groups may live in more polluted areas for the simple reason that to be poor means not having the resources to "purchase" the good things in life—including a clean environment. By that I mean the ability to buy or rent a house or apartment in a clean neighborhood, which will be more expensive than one in a polluted neighborhood. The rich can afford to pay this premium while the poor cannot. In other words, firms may make their polluting decisions based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with local demographics, yet households will move in such a way that the poor end up living nearer pollution. In this case, the source of environmental inequity is the more fundamental inequity in the distribution of income.
But this mechanism has an important implication: the observed demographic patterns arise from decisions that individuals have made to make the best use of their limited resources. Saving money for food and clothing through inexpensive housing may be a higher priority for the poor than a clean environment. A cleanup may cause a neighborhood to gentrify, increasing housing prices. While this represents a capital gain to owners, 83 percent of people poor enough to qualify for welfare are renters. For them, these costs are out of their pocket, and can make the poor worse off in the end. In effect, the cleanup often forces the poor to pay a price they cannot afford.
A third and final mechanism may be that some communities have features that are attractive to both disadvantaged households and polluting firms. For example, both may be attracted to lower real estate prices. Moreover, real estate prices may be lower near transportation corridors like highways or railroads. The poor live near them because of these lower costs; polluting facilities may locate near them because the transportation route reduces the cost of moving manufactured goods or wastes. And finally, both poorer households and polluting facilities may be mutually attracted by low-skilled labor markets. In this case, the correlation between pollution and disadvantaged groups again arises from the simple fact that these groups have lower incomes. The effect is reinforced by the unhappy coincidence that some features of the inexpensive communities affordable for the poor are actually attractive to polluters.
Avoiding Unintended Consequences
For existing cleanup efforts such as the Superfund and brownfields programs, these mechanisms suggest guidelines that can help minimize unintended consequences like gentrification. Two recommendations stand out. First, as emphasized by the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, projects should involve local participation. This will increase the likelihood that new amenities fit the preferences of incumbent residents rather than those of prospective gentrifiers. Second, projects might prioritize areas with high rates of home ownership, where local residents will capture the full value of the cleanup.
But there is a larger point at stake. When experiencing poor environmental quality is a consequence, rather than a cause, of poverty, then cleaning up the environment to help the poor is like treating the symptom rather than the disease. Some symptoms, like a moderate fever, represent the body's best efforts to heal itself. In such cases, treating the symptom may actually be counterproductive. This does not mean there is no role for a physician. But the best physician facilitates the body's natural healing processes. Like the body, the market is a remarkably efficient machine.
Accordingly, the best way to help disadvantaged groups may be to empower them, strengthening their position within the market system. Redistributing income to the poor, for example, would provide them with more resources to pay for those things they most want, including a cleaner environment. Encouraging home ownership would put more people in a position to truly benefit from neighborhood improvements such as environmental cleanups. Providing legal aid, facilitating conflict resolution, and otherwise helping poor residents in environmental disputes can help the legal bargaining process to function better and enable the poor to participate in it fully. These may be the more effective routes for helping the poor—and prove to have "win, win" outcomes for society.