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Environmental Justice is a Shared Public Sector Burden

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
March 18, 2016

The man-made disaster unfolding in Flint, Mich., is one example of environmental injustice. The decisions made by public officials to move from healthy, treated water to unhealthy, untreated water in a predominantly black and low-income city is unconscionable. The case underscores why the public sector should not be managed like a business. Business models have profit motives and take calculated risks. In the public sector, people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, which require decisionmaking in the public’s interest.

The situation highlights how low-income and communities of color across the U.S. face different realities than other communities. Too often, they end up being the victims of public policy decisions (transportation, housing, land use, safety). As such, environmental justice is now the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Image by Wake Forest University

Photo credit: Image by Wake Forest University

Low-income communities and communities of color are exposed to greater environmental risks more so than other communities. As the discipline responsible for the implementation of public policies, there has been a widespread failure in the public sector to protect the public’s interest by allowing disparities to persist. Although many of the environmental risks have health consequences, these issues have broad implications for the entire public sector.

Thus, the actions of current and future public administrators are critical in shaping the public’s response to environmental injustices. The following is presented to stimulate discourse around environmental justice in public administration.

Linking Theory to Practice 

In 2015, James Perry noted public administration has experienced serious governance failures in political institutions and other arenas. Many of these failures disproportionately affect communities of color. In order to create a responsive model for future practice, efforts to promote social justice throughout the discipline are needed.

Public administration programs must also be deliberate about establishing curriculae that are responsive to the myriad needs of citizens. In addition, academic programs should conduct actionable research that not only contribute to the discipline but also yield results with broad implications for the public sector.

Restoration of Public Trust

Public trust in government is at a historic low. From the high profiling killings of unarmed Black men to the polarizing rhetoric by presidential candidates, issues of race and racism have become an increasing concern in American society.

  • Teaching and promoting ethics and a public service perspective are minimal standards.
  • The discipline needs more relevant, timely models that take into account the context playing out in real time.
  • The people need to see government actors being held accountable for behaviors and decisions.
  • Elected officials, law enforcement officers and all public sector employees have a role to play in demonstrating a public service ethic. 

Promote Social Equity in Academic Programs 

To level the playing field, public administration programs should require content on social equity and environmental justice. In preparing students to work in the sector, students must understand the status of disadvantaged communities, as well as the impacts and implications of public policies. However, creating social equity should not be considered a goal but an intermediary step on the way toward equality in social, economic, educational, political, health and other outcomes.

Address Fundamental Public Policy Issues 

As a society, we need to recognize that institutionalized racism is embedded in public policies and implementation practices. It’s time to admit that some of the policies and actions taken on the public’s behalf have yielded very different outcomes based on race, ethnicity and class status. The public sector needs to come to grips with the fact that institutionalized racism is pervasive and public policies are not race neutral.

Addressing Unhealthy Communities 

As a long-standing issue, the disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color has had a disproportionately negative impact on the health and health outcomes of those residing there. These communities are deprived of critical resources, shaped by neglect and lack financial investment in infrastructure and engagement in decisionmaking processes. As a result, the conditions residents face are not conducive to good health. Thus, public administration has an important role to play in getting people engaged and implementing public policies in an equitable manner.

Creating healthy communities will require the public sector and individuals alike taking their share of the responsibility for building an inclusive society. Fueled with knowledge and conviction, both citizens and the public sector must once again become inspired in hoping for change in the future.


Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Ph.D., RN, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Human Services and Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research focuses on social equity, cultural competence and racial and ethnic health disparities. 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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