Coming Clean on the Stimulus

A report issued by the White House and the Education Department on Monday showed that the federal economic stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) has so far created or saved 250,000 education jobs. The report is the first hard evidence of the Recovery Act’s contribution to the nation’s economic health, and previews more extensive data that will be released October 30.

The report is good news for at least two reasons. First, it documents how public investment is helping to pull the nation back from the brink of a devastating economic depression. And, second, it includes crucial information that should inform the ongoing investment of stimulus funds to achieve a full recovery—especially when it comes to job creation. In analyzing the full October data, however, it is important to ask not only how many jobs were created and what infrastructure was built, but also whether we are investing in a lasting economic recovery that will include our entire nation.

Because stimulus funds are flowing largely through traditional state and local channels, particular attention is needed to ensure that they reach the communities and populations that need them most, that distribution is fair and transparent, and that progress is measured in terms of greater and more equal opportunity for all Americans.

If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we are all in it together when it comes to the economy. When all communities have access to jobs, education and health care, and can contribute to our economy through spending, taxes, and entrepreneurship, we all do better. And when millions of our people are shut out from economic participation, we are all held back. It’s in our national interest to foster the economic participation of all Americans, and to invest in the infrastructure of opportunity, particularly where it’s been ignored in the past.

Monday’s education report includes some encouraging details on this front. It reports, for example, that schools in Lafayette, Indiana are using Recovery Act funds to extend the school day and year in two schools with the highest rates of poverty. West Hartford, CT is using funds to provide after-school math and reading help for the town’s neediest elementary schools, and Hillsborough County, FL is using its incentive pay program to attract and keep highly-qualified teachers working with the most at-risk students. Along with saving hundreds of thousands of jobs, these investments go a long way toward the Recovery Act’s education goal, which is “to stimulate the economy in the short term, while investing in education advancements to ensure the long-term economic health and success of our nation.”

At the same time, however, there continues to be a troubling lack of information about the overall accountability and equity of stimulus investments on the ground. There is no indication in Monday’s report, for example, as to whether innovative efforts to expand opportunity are the norm, or simply sporadic points of light. The report is silent, moreover, on whether African American and Latino students—who are disproportionately concentrated in our nation’s most under-resourced schools—are benefiting from stimulus investments to the extent that their pressing need and overrepresentation in our public schools would dictate. The Administration has done well in identifying such interventions as priorities, but we simply don’t know how or whether they are playing out on the ground.

The same lack of information has plagued the larger recovery effort so far. While the government’s stimulus tracking website—www.recovery.gov—offers some useful information, it is currently inadequate for determining, for example, whether jobs reach women and men on an equal opportunity basis, or whether transportation and health care infrastructure projects are serving communities that reflect comparative need and the growing diversity of our nation.

Lack of transparency has been an even bigger problem at the state and local level. Residents and community groups around the country have been frequently frustrated in their attempts to identify and participate in needed initiatives. And, with a few exceptions like New York City’s NYC Stat website, state and local stimulus tracking sites are strikingly uninformative.

Eight months into the economic recovery, the lack of transparency or a documented focus on greater and more equal opportunity is disappointing. But that can and should change, starting now. For the October 30<sup>th</sup> data release and going forward, the Administration should document online and in its reporting how each stimulus investment is or is not expanding opportunity to disconnected communities. It should disaggregate employment, education, entrepreneurial, and infrastructure data by race, gender, and disability, as well as by other demographic characteristics like rural/urban/suburban, along which opportunity has frequently been segregated.

In considering future disbursements of Recovery Act funds—some $228 billion in contracts, grants, and loans remains to be distributed—federal agencies should require fund applicants to share with the public detailed information about stimulus project choices, and to invite and consider public input in determining investments. As I have urged before in this column, governments at each level should employ Opportunity Impact Statements to ensure that greater and more equal opportunity for all residents are prioritized.

The stimulus and other timely efforts are helping to stave off an economic meltdown of catastrophic proportions. But the hard work of lasting recovery lies ahead. Moving from fiscal survival to broadly shared economic security and prosperity requires a focus on opportunity for all.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Tags: economics, Education, Opportunity, recovery, stimulus (all tags)

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