By NASW Senior Practice Associate Carrie Dorn, MPA, LMSW
Increasingly, social workers are recognizing the impact of environmental health and climate change on the individuals and communities they serve. Recent federal initiatives can inform practice by helping social workers to understand vulnerabilities and opportunities at the local level.
Social workers can help families identify the connection between the environment and health, and they may support community members to advocate for solutions to environmental issues.
For example, heat-related illness during the summer months is preventable, but tragically leads to illness and death for hundreds of people every year in the United States according to the CDC. People living in urban areas face higher temperatures and concentrated exposure to heat because of the landscape, and particular neighborhoods within cities can be significantly hotter than others. On an individual level, social workers can educate individuals about the dangers of heat exposure in outdoor and indoor settings– especially for vulnerable older adults, children, and those who work outside– and help families gain access to air condition or cooling centers. At the community level, social workers may advocate for solutions such as increasing trees and vegetation in urban spaces and promoting public access to air-conditioned spaces.
In January 2021, President Biden made a commitment across federal agencies through the Justice40 Initiative, created by Executive Order 14008, requiring investments to benefit underserved communities that historically have been overburdened by pollution and environmental hazards. The Administration identified 21 programs to start as pilot programs of the Justice40 initiative, and since that time, the number of covered federal programs has grown significantly.
The goals of the Justice40 initiative are to engage communities and residents in identifying local needs and work to advance sustainable solutions in seven specific areas: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure.
Tools have been created by both the federal government and outside organizations to support implementation and tracking and ensure that the vision of Justice40 is fully realized.
The Administration created the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify “disadvantaged” communities that would benefit most from engagement and investment. Harvard Law School maintains the Federal Environmental Justice Tracker to provide up-to-date information about federal government activity in this area. External groups have also recommended improvements to various aspects of the program to make sure that it benefits the communities in greatest need. For example, Urban Institute issued detailed recommendations in November 2022 in Positioning Justice40 for Success, A Policy and Practice Playbook.
Other Federal Initiatives
Other administrative actions and legislation have brought new opportunities such as:
- The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 committed historic investments to advance clean energy and address climate change at the state and community level. It also provides benefits to households, contractors, and others through incentives and tax credits to lower the costs for energy-efficient household upgrades. The RewiringAmerica website provides fact sheets and information for households to access savings available. Harvard Law School has created a detailed table of benefits of the IRA and eligible applicants for funding.
- In 2021 The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) to address the national health impacts of climate change.
- Advisory boards within the White House have been established to advance environmental justice progress:
- HHS launched the Heath Sector Climate Pledge for health organizations to commit to reduce emissions and share climate resilience plans.
- The Environmental Justice Scorecard was created to track Federal agency performance on environmental justice, including on the Justice40 Initiative.
- In 2022, the Administration launched Heat.gov through an interagency collaboration to provide to provide tools and information to reduce the health risks of extreme heat.
The Biden Administration has taken significant steps in acknowledging the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards particularly on low-income and communities of color and facilitating solutions to address them. One issue plaguing communities is a lack of affordable access to clean water, a problem that social workers may come across in their work.
The HHS Administration for Children and Families supports the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, which is a covered program under the Justice40 initiative. This program operates in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and 97 tribal areas and provides households with support to cover costs for drinking water and wastewater services.
It prioritizes households that are disconnected from water services, or at risk of disconnection, because of past due bills and nonpayment. It also aims to serve people with disabilities, households with young children or older adults, and those with high water costs relative to income. With knowledge of initiatives like the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, social workers can connect households to supportive programs and help inform state level planning.
Social work’s expertise in addressing the social determinants of health extends to the natural environment, and recent federal actions support the work of social workers in both direct and indirect ways. Social workers can help bring awareness to opportunities through their work with individuals and families, and social workers themselves may be closely involved in community-level projects to improve the environmental conditions in their local area.
NASW supports these initiatives that promote health and well-being nationwide.