Shocking: New Research Shows Pollution Inequality in America Even Worse Than Income Inequality
James K. Boyce, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, directs the environment program of the Political Economy Research Institute. His research focuses on the impacts of inequalities of wealth and power and the dynamics of conflict and includes the Toxic 100 Air Polluters, an index identifying the top U.S. air polluters among the world's largest corporations. A 2009 special report by USA Today drew upon Boyce’s work, along with EPA data, to create a database exposing air toxicity in schools across the country. In a new study funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking's Political Economy of Distribution Series, Boyce collaborates with Klara Zwickl and Michael Ash to compare disparities of exposure to industrial air pollution in U.S. states and congressional districts among the poor and non-poor, as well as whites and non-whites. They find that in America, inequality is in the very air we breathe.
I spoke to Boyce about his research and the impact of environmental inequality on politics, education, economics, and the shape of our society.
Lynn Parramore: What does your recent work add to the growing body of research on inequality and pollution?
James K. Boyce: We’ve been working with these data for several years now in a collaborative research project with researchers with University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, and several other institutions, and we’ve done a variety of studies that look, in particular, at patterns of environmental injustice in the U.S. along the lines of disproportionate exposure of people of color and low-income communities.
What’s new is that we developed three different inequality measures and applied these both at the level of individual states and at the level of the 435 congressional districts in order to get a sense of how unequally exposure to industrial air toxins is distributed in these two political jurisdictions. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done that.
In addition to looking the ratios of exposures of people of color versus whites and of people living below the federal poverty line versus the non-poor, we also developed an environmental version of the Gini coefficient, which basically ranks the population, in this case from the people with the cleanest air to the people with the dirtiest air, and measures how unequally air quality is distributed in the states and congressional districts. That was a new contribution.
LP: What stood out to you in the results?
JKB: One of the real take-home findings is that if you look at how unequally environmental quality is distributed in the U.S., it actually makes inequality of the distribution of income look relatively modest. I wasn't entirely surprised to find that air quality is distributed even more unequally than income, but I was surprised at the magnitude of the difference. It’s really striking.
Another thing that became clear is that how you look at inequality can have rather dramatic results on which communities stand out as being the most unequal. I was a bit surprised that states and congressional districts that ranked highest in terms of disproportionate exposures of people of color, for example, did not necessarily rank highest in terms of the scale of disparities between the most exposed and the least exposed communities.
So from a methodological standpoint, I think our paper makes an important contribution in two ways. One is in showing that it’s possible to measure inequality in the distribution of environmental quality, much as we measure inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. And the second methodological contribution is to show how different jurisdictions in the U.S. rank in terms of environmental inequality really depends on what specific measures of environmental inequality one is interested in.
If one is primarily interested in disparities in terms of race or ethnicity, then one can directly compare those measures that are relevant. If one is most interested in the extent of divergence between the most polluted and the least polluted communities or states, then a different measure is appropriate to use. Our study shows both that it’s possible to look at these things, and that in doing so we need to be sensitive to the measures we employ.
LP: Do patterns of inequality differ across the country? How can a person of color or a poor person avoid air pollution?
JKB: Avoiding industrial air pollution is difficult, particularly if you're poor or a member of a racial or ethnic minority. That’s partly because of housing prices. It’s partly because of discrimination in housing and mortgage markets — the phenomenon of red-lining. And it’s also partly because of the tendency for firms to site polluting facilities in relatively low-income and relatively high-minority communities because they expect less political pushback.
Rather than thinking about trying to move somewhere else to escape this, which is an attempt to find an individual solution to the problem, what folks really need to do—and are doing—is to join together with other members of their communities and press the polluters and the regulators to reduce the exposures that result from the activities of industrial facilities near them.
That’s what the environmental justice movement in the U.S. has been trying to do since the 1980s when it really got going. The EJ movement still has much that needs to be done, but it has accomplished a great deal both in terms of raising awareness of disproportionate exposures of people of color and low-income people to environmental hazards, and by pressing policy makers in both the public sector and the private sector to take remedial action.
LP: Three states — Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania – account for 40 percent of congressional districts that appear in your top-10 rankings for inequality in industrial air pollution. What factors are impacting residents in those areas? (See a complete list of U.S. congressional districts, ranked according to disparities in industrial air pollution exposure.)
JKB: Those states broadly, corresponding to the old industrial heartland of the country, are places where you both have relatively high levels of industrial air pollution and relatively high disparities between the exposure of minorities and that of whites. And so that makes them particularly problematic places to live in if you happen to be African American or Latino. It makes them areas in which environmental justice activism and enforcement activities should be high on the agenda of environmentalists, community activists, and public officials.
LP: Do you think your study will help activate politicians in those districts to address disparities?
JKB: I would hope so. In terms of the policy relevance of our work, the methods we developed help to provide information about where pollution abatement efforts ought to be concentrated. What are the most important places where we should try to reduce community exposure to industrial air pollution? And insofar as new pollution sources are going to be constructed, where should they be built so as not to exacerbate the disparities that already plague so many communities?
LP: What are some of the most concerning economic effects of industrial air pollution on communities?
JKB: Air pollution has adverse effects on people’s health, and that means that they have to spend more on healthcare and they miss more days of work, either because they themselves are too ill to go to work or because their kids are sick and they have to stay home and take care of them. It also has adverse effects on property values, which vary with the levels of air pollution in the community.
On top of those outcome effects, it also impacts equality of opportunity, particularly for children. Because communities that are heavily burdened with air pollution tend to have higher incidence and greater severity of childhood asthma, the kids miss more days of school, and partly because they’re missing school and perhaps partly because of the neurological impacts of air pollution on their young and developing cognitive function, there is an adverse effect on school performance.
If you believe, as I think most Americans believe, that every kid deserves an equal chance, that equality of opportunity for children is dear to our society for reasons of both equity and efficiency, then the impacts of disproportionate pollution burdens on the children in some communities – the fact that the playing field is tilted against them through no fault of their own – is a troubling feature of our environmental landscape.
LP: You’ve noted that exposure contributes to student achievement gaps. Does this information challenge the assumption that the problems of education lie mostly with schools and teachers?
JKB: Of course it does. What it suggests is that the playing field is not level, and that not all teachers are teaching in the same environment. So even if teachers are equally qualified, and equally hard-working, educational outcomes will differ. A team of researchers led by Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California looked at variations in school performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They controlled for the usual factors, such as parental income and education, class sizes, and teacher salaries, and found that when they plugged in data on variations on air quality, it had a significant adverse effect on school performance. What that implies is that even if one attended to every other educational problem, we'd still see disparities in educational outcomes as long as we have serious disparities in pollution exposure.
LP: How might we confront the environmental disparities you have highlighted?
JKB: Well, I think there are a variety of strategies for doing so. The first step is to measure and map the extent of disparities, so that we have a handle on what the problem really is. Once we’ve got that information, there are a variety of things that individuals and communities can do to try to improve the situation.
One is to press public officials to take steps to redress excessive pollution burdens. Executive Order 12898 issued by President Clinton in 1994, which remains in force, directs all federal agencies to take steps to identify and rectify disproportionate health and environmental impacts resulting from their activities, policies, and programs on minorities and low-income populations. That policy is already on the books at the federal level. Some states have EJ policies, too, and states that don’t have them, ought to have them. Communities can press officials to act on those mandates, both to prevent additional pollution and to reduce existing burdens.
Above and beyond that, communities can directly engage with, and when necessary confront, private sector actors that are creating the pollution. Most firms are not insensitive to public opinion. In fact, firms may voluntarily take steps to clean up their act, if and when they realize that their communities are aware of what’s going on.
This is why the public's right to know about environmental hazards is so important. An informed public can press both public officials and private firms to curtail pollution and to reduce environmental disparities.