90260. This ZIP code predicts my health, environment, and life outcomes. My home is right off the I-405 freeway in Lawndale. When I was younger, I thought this was fortunate because my mom could get to work faster. However, as I witnessed half of my siblings develop asthma and my parents struggle with cardiovascular issues, I realized it wasn’t as great as I once thought. This is jarring because Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma, as compared to non-Latino whites. In high school, I learned that low-income communities of color near major freeways, hazardous waste sites, and fast-food chains do not happen by chance. Communities like mine result from policy decisions that deemed my neighborhood undesirable for investment, making them hotspots for environmental and social injustices. 

Fortunately, communities that have faced historical injustice are starting to be seen by policymakers. The Biden-Harris Administration has allocated significant funds into environmental justice efforts, providing an opportunity to change the outcomes of ZIP codes like mine. Through Executive Order 14008, the Council on Environmental Quality Chair introduced the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) to publish maps highlighting disadvantaged communities. 

This tool plays a crucial role in supporting Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to ensure that 40% of the overall benefits of federal climate, clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, clean water, and other investments are delivered to marginalized, disadvantaged, and pollution-burdened communities. The screening too helps Federal agencies identify communities that will benefit from the Justice40 reinvestment. 

According to the screening tool’s methodology, communities are disadvantaged only if they meet the threshold for at least one of the tool’s burden categories, or if they are located within the boundaries of the Federally Recognized Tribes. However, there is a caveat. If your tract is burdened under one of the categories but does not meet its low-income threshold of 65%, it is not disadvantaged. 

Thus, although CEJST recognizes significant burdens in my tract, such as historical underinvestment, traffic pollution ranking in the 99th percentile, and a lack of green space ranking in the 92nd percentile, my census tract in my city Lawndale is not labeled as disadvantaged because it falls slightly below the low-income threshold at 62%. This census tract is also home to majority Latinos.

This 3% difference is why my home will not receive investment under Justice40. 

This census tract is majority Latino, and they live in linguistic isolation, near hazardous waste facilities, and are exposed to the highest levels of 2.5 particulate matter. The screening too fails to account for the intersectional experience of living near a freeway, residing in a food desert, or having the financial resources to manage one’s health. Even if my community and I recognize our neighborhood as disadvantaged, CEJST’s criteria state otherwise. 

Furthermore, the screening too does not use race as a factor in determining disadvantage. Race was only added as a contextual measure after the CEJST feedback period on the beta. This measure does not influence whether or not a census tract is disadvantaged. The Administration’s decision to exclude race seems political, likely due to the recent Supreme Court case regarding affirmative action at universities. 

The fear is that since the Court struck down affirmative action, environmental policies and tools that use race to provide resources may also become invalidated. By neglecting race, communities of color, like my majority Latino community, are left out. 

A research analyst at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Manuel Salgado, found that the percentage of Latino, Black, and Asian residents in disadvantaged tracts decreased after the beta version of the CEJST, as the percentage of white residents increased. It’s important to remember that  environmental racism cannot be resolved by being color blind. 

I share this story because I was excited to hear that my home could be a part of an initiative that provides support for communities like mine that have been historically and systematically disinvested in. However, I learned that my home might once again be excluded from the investment. 

Efforts must be made to ensure that CEJST recognizes the compounding effects of social and environmental risks. For instance, a state tool that does measure cumulative impacts identifies my lived experiences as disadvantaged. On a scale of 0 to 100, 100 representing the most burdened, my ZIP code has an overall score of 85. This means my home is exposed to more significant environmental and public health burdens and has sensitive populations. CEJST should adopt a similar approach and not require that each burden category be attached to a stringent low-income threshold. 

I call on the Biden-Harris Administration to value lived experiences as much as it values percentiles. I invite them to visit my home, witness my community firsthand, and understand that strict data criteria perpetuate the very systems they are striving to correct. Let us recognize that real change comes from acknowledging and addressing the different realities of every community. 

Read more stories about health issues here.

Selena D. Melgoza, (she/her/hers), is currently a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. An incoming Fellow within the UCLA LPPI Research Department, Selena...