By Dylan Lewis | ecoWURD
President Biden’s creatively named “Inflation Reduction Act” finally passed the Senate – then it passed the House both narrowly and by partisan margins. The bill was long awaited, causing divisions within Congress and, for a moment, within the Democratic Party itself as more “moderate” to conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) were either critical of various aspects of the bill or demanded the deletion of key provisions. Compromises were made, with fossil fuel companies (thanks to Manchin) and private investment firms (thanks to Sinema) still winning out. Still the “IRA” – as it’s also known – ended up being the most significant U.S. government direct spend on climate crisis ever: nearly $400 billion. After much debate, the transformative history-making bill was signed into law.
What Does It Mean?
But, most Americans are still confused: What does it all mean? While the IRA’s title may indicate something solely economic, one major aim of the bill is to introduce sweeping legislation in order to combat the climate crisis that we are facing. It also aims to make healthcare more accessible, reduce the federal deficit and to create jobs; both are goals that are deeply intertwined with the environment and in concert, it’s hoped the bill will hopefully improve the lives of many Americans.
What does this bill say exactly? ecoWURD looked into it to figure out exactly what it means for Black Philadelphians. According to the summary created by the Senate, the Inflation Reduction Act:
- Expands Medicare benefits: that includes free vaccines (2023), $35/month insulin (2023) and capped out-of-pocket drug costs to an estimated $4,000 or less in 2024 and settling at $2,000 in 2025
- Lowers energy bills: Cuts energy bills by $500 to $1,000 per year
- Makes historic climate investment: Spends $385 billion on direct climate crisis response efforts with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by roughly 40% by 2030
- Lowers health care costs: Saves the average enrollee $800/year in the ACA marketplace, allows Medicare to negotiate 100 drugs over the next decade, and requires drug companies to rebate back price increases higher than inflation
- Creates manufacturing jobs: More than $60 billion invested will create millions of new domestic clean manufacturing jobs
- Invests in disadvantaged communities: Cleaning up pollution and taking steps to reducing environmental injustice with $60 billion for environmental justice
- Closes tax loopholes used by wealthy: A 15 percent corporate minimum tax (although, due to Sinema’s last minute infamous intervention, private equity investment firms avoided that), a 1 percent fee on stock buybacks and enhanced IRS enforcement by hiring 80,000 more IRS workers.
- Protects families and small businesses making $400,000 or less
But, What Do Black Folks Get Out of It?
This bill is making some big promises to many communities affected deeply by the climate crisis, including those here in Philadelphia. We’ve seen the dramatic effects of climate change within our own city with the flooding of the Schuylkill and Vine Street expressways during hurricane Ida and, before that, there was the PES refinery fire. Philadelphia is also considered one of a few asthma capitals within the country, and it is predicted that Independence Hall could be underwater in the not too distant future as a result of sea level rise. This legislation is not just about combating climate change in Philadelphia, it is about our preservation as a city and ensuring hundreds of thousands of residents don’t end up being displaced.
As a predominantly Black city, the lives of Black Philadelphians are at the frontlines, anyway, considering how we tackle the climate crisis. Pollution from industry is highest in Black, brown, and low-income communities, putting us at risk for major hazardous catastrophes; food deserts leave these same communities at a loss for fresh fruit and vegetables and increases the risk of heart health issues; and predominantly Black neighborhoods such as Chester and Nicetown have been blatantly disrespected by policymakers as they have been used as dumping grounds and toxic waste sites. If this legislation has absolutely anything to do with environmental justice as it claims, there must be focus on Black communities within Philadelphia that have been sacrificed in the name of “industry” and “progress.”
While analyzing the IRA, we explored ways in which the new law will help more distressed, vulnerable and mostly Black communities in Philadelphia and places like it. Here’s what we came up with:
- The expansion of medicare benefits will, potentially, lower health care costs. That makes the treatment of debilitating and chronic health issues caused by the environment such as asthma, certain cancers, heart issues, and others more accessible and affordable.
- The reduction of carbon emissions will hopefully aid in slowing climate change on a global scale. The U.S. is the top carbon producing country in the world. Forcing it to reduce carbon emissions lessens the impact of hazardous climate disasters within our communities. Keep in mind: 40 percent of Black populations in the U.S. live in a climate impact zone or region. Those are places that experience the most direct impact from climate crisis, whether that’s hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, tornadoes or flooding.
- There are many Black Philadelphians living at or beneath the poverty line. An increase in domestic clean manufacturing jobs within our city could offer economic benefits if jobs were catered specifically to these communities.
- The closing of tax loopholes has the potential to stall developers in their quest for more gentrification. In slowing gentrification, we slow down the mass displacement of residents, mostly Black, who can’t afford rising rents, the rising costs of housing and the rising property taxes. The environmental effects of pollution from construction will lessen along with the destruction of Black community ecosystems and cultures.
- Protections for family and small businesses could allow for more Black businesses creation and preservation. This expands the potential for economic mobility. In addition to this small Black-owned grocers, co-operative supermarkets, and restaurants could utilize this legislation to combat food insecurity within the city and more small green businesses could appear and provide new job opportunities within the community.
- Finally, a key point of the law is the investment in clean-up of pollution in disadvantaged communities and fighting environmental injustices. Philadelphia is a city that needs these investments as racist and careless environmental decisions have had personal and community consequences for many Black residents.
Show Us The Money
These are optimistic outlooks for what the Inflation Reduction Act could bring to Philadelphia. However, with the positives we must consider how policy like this has historically failed Black communities time and time again.
It’s still unclear exactly how much money Philadelphia receives from this law and, also, the previously passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that will directly benefit Black and marginalized communities. It may still be too early to tell how many IRA dollars flow into Philly since the law just passed. We’re starting to get a sense of the BIL dollars, however. Billy Penn recently produced a deep dive outlining hundreds of millions of dollars for citywide “improvement” projects, but we won’t know if these investments improve equity.
Philly could already receive an estimated $735 million in BIL funds for safer streets (pedestrian fatalities and injuries do disproportionately impact Black residents), electric car charging stations (the price of those are out of reach), airport enhancements, redesigning built environments and zero-emission SEPTA buses. But, the question remains: Do these improvements improve the quality of life for Black people in a place like Philadelphia? What do Black communities get out of it?
Environmental justice is deeply intertwined with public health, class, and the ongoing struggle for Black liberation. What this bill cannot do is try to be a band-aid for centuries of environmental inequity. For too long, the climate crisis has been separated from its very destructive effects on Black communities across the country.
If the IRA is a way to cover the ignorance and negligence of the local, state, and federal government rather than to create systemic change then it will not save anyone … save the egos of the elected officials who passed it and the special interests who helped write it. Comprehensive environmental reform must be truly committed to actively centering communities bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. Philadelphia is one of those key places where we can put this into practice.