By Christina Chen
Last Friday the government provided its first comprehensive look at how and where a significant chunk of recovery dollars are being spent. The Administration, in characteristic Obama fashion, hung a lantern on its problems by acknowledging that the data is not perfect, and that the figures (most notably, the 640,329 being bandied around as the amount of jobs “saved or created” by direct stimulus funding) account for only a small portion of the Recovery Act’s impact.
Setting aside the more obvious issue of whether ARRA is spurring genuine growth, it is important to recognize that the Act is the most transparent spending bill ever legislated. The data released last week on Recovery.org, the Administration’s official repository for all things ARRA, reflects the roughly 121,000 reports filed by the direct recipients of stimulus grants and contracts. These reports offer descriptions of the status and nature of stimulus-funded activities, as well as projections of the jobs that projects have purportedly retained or created.
The data (quite conspicuously) fails to render a clear snapshot of how ARRA is impacting economically distressed communities of color. The breadth of recipient reporting has been extensive, but the data is shallow. Recipients are not required to report the gender, race, or residential zip codes of ARRA-funded workers. As Yvonne Yen Liu and Terry Keleher explain in the Applied Research Center’s forthcoming “Green Equity Toolkit: Standards and Strategies for Advancing Race, Gender, Economic Equity in the Green Economy,” this data is critical in gauging whether communities of color are accessing ARRA-allotted resources in an equitable manner.
Although recovery.gov offers an interactive map that allows visitors to search projects by zip code, we can’t be sure if that money remains within the community, as the prospect of workers and contractors from neighborhoods outside of their work sites is likely.
So how can equity advocates work toward implementing a fair and inclusive recovery? Organizations like ARC are pushing for racial and gender-explicit data reporting. We are demanding, for instance, that local governments collect data on the wages and benefits earned by people of color and women- so that the public can determine whether these groups are receiving high quality jobs. With this type of extensive tracking in place, our communities can fight for a more equitable recovery.
Even without these additional reporting categories, sifting through the current data is no easy task. One key area of confusion is the tricky math around job estimates. The reports cover only $160 billion of the $340 billion ARRA funds that have been obligated as of September 30th. The Administration has been quick to beat its critics to the punch by explaining that four significant categories of ARRA spending associated with jobs— funds for safety net programs (i.e. unemployment insurance, food stamps, and temporary welfare payments), small business loans (of which the ever modest Vice President claims to have produced “tens of thousands of jobs”), tax credits, and indirect employment—are omitted in this round of reports. The last category has proven to be the most contentious; stimulus spending generates a multiplier effect, creating and preserving indirect jobs that are often the most difficult to quantify (for instance, the person who mans the cash register at a grocery store frequented by the ARRA-funded workers of a turbine plant nearby).
The process of measuring jobs created gets even trickier because of the convoluted math involved. Job units are not measured via simple headcounts; to distinguish a worker’s ARRA-funded hours from those compensated by another source, the OMB (download pdf) instructed recipients to calculate jobs by dividing the total hours worked on an ARRA funded project by the number of full time hours in a quarter. As ProPublica points out, the employment of a construction worker on a one-month paving project would count only as a third of a job.
Additionally, reports are only required of direct recipients of ARRA funding. Because subcontractors and vendors who supply the goods and services necessary for executing projects are not subject to reporting requirements, jobs resulting from those activities are not computed.
Although there are snags within this quarter’s recovery reporting, we believe that deeper and clearer ARRA data will be invaluable to those fighting for a fair recovery. In the meantime, check out our green jobs equity toolkit for existing resources on how to ensure that everybody is able to fully participate in the new, green economy.
Christina Chen is a research assistant with the Applied Research Center.