While sometimes it seems like our political system is broken, the corruption that mires Capitol Hill is nothing compared to the disrepair and erosion that plagues the roads and railways of the communities that Congress is supposed to be representing. The White House recently enacted a stop-gap funding measure for short-term infrastructure spending. Now, as pressure mounts on Congress to pass a full-scale infrastructure bill, activists see a turning point, too. The Transportation Equity Network is demanding that the potential infrastructure jobs in the pipeline are not only good jobs but also targeted toward the communities that most need them.
Historically, the government’s response to structural discrimination and inequality in the labor force has been the affirmative action mandates of Executive Order 11246, a longstanding regulation that sets target rates for minority and female participation in federally sponsored construction projects. The target percentages were set using 1980 census data, leaving them woefully out of date.
TEN is simply asking that the minority participation guidelines be updated to reflect the country’s current demographic reality and serve the overarching goal of making publicly supported job opportunities equitable toward disadvantaged groups.
TEN’s analysis of current census data shows that in some areas, the balance between whites and people of color have shifted so dramatically, the old rates look like affirmative action in reverse. In the St. Louis metro area, the minority workforce participation rate has jumped from 14.7 percent to 20.7 percent. The rate in Springfield, Illinois has more than tripled, from 4.5 to 13.6 percent. In California’s Sonoma County region, minority participation has soared from 9 percent to 32 percent.
Women’s participation in construction work also faces a huge imbalance. The contract workforce guidelines are set at the extremely modest rate of 6.9 percent women, but the industry remains overwhelmingly male, thanks in large part to discriminatory gender stereotypes. According to the National Women’s Law Center: “In 2010, only 2.6 percent of the more than 8.4 million workers in construction trades and related occupations were women.”
But it’s not just the numbers that are off. In addition to the lack of coherent, up-to-date affirmative action guidance, activists want stronger enforcement measures, so that contractors experience real consequences if they fail to comply. Activists say the regulations are essentially toothless because the enforcement process, run by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, relies on individual complaints, not comprehensive monitoring of contractors.