Choking Black Prosperity, by Syd Gernstein

At a cost of somewhere between $25 and $35 billion in taxpayer dollars, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990.1 It is the mother of hundreds of regulatory laws across America that are supposed to address air pollution. Environmentalists are extremely protective of them, even if it means hurting poor and minority Americans in the process.

Sadly, for those who are harmed by its provisions, these regulations may not be needed at all. Scientists have found that many of them go beyond merely failing to achieve their goal of cleaning the air;2 many of them actually hurt the environment.3 Economists also point out that these regulations cost businesses and consumers millions upon millions of dollars every year.4 While almost every group of Americans feels the effects of these flawed regulations, no group hurt more by Clean Air regulations more than those living in poor and minority communities.

Big businesses forced to pay for increased environmental regulations pass along the costs to consumers. And which consumers are affected most? It’s the ones with the least amount of money to start with, and who can sometimes barely afford their bills as it is: the poor and minorities. Since Clean Air regulations affect almost every industry, from dry cleaning to gasoline, it means that the prices of hundreds of consumer goods are on the rise because of them. These regulations make the meager budgets that many families survive on even tighter. At a time when black families in particular are finally beginning to earn enough to be able to put money away to pay for their children’s education or ensure their own retirement security, it would be a shame to have precious funds wasted on unnecessary and harmful regulations instead.

Clean Air regulations strike the most vulnerable segments of the population outside of their pocketbooks, too. In Washington, D.C., the city government may purchase new buses fueled by alternative fuels under the notion that they will run cleaner than its existing fleet. According to the Washington Times, however, studies link the chemicals found in these alternative fuels to increased asthma and other respiratory problems.5 These buses and the facilities to maintain them are found more often in the inner city than in the more affluent and less racially diverse suburbs. Thus, Washington’s efforts to achieve cleaner air will, in fact, subject the predominantly minority residents of the city to increased risks associated with poor air quality.

An argument used to support Clean Air regulation is that increased air pollution has led to an increase in asthma among residents of the inner city. What is not mentioned is that studies indicate that the poor state of government housing may also contribute to the rise in respiratory ailments. While Clean Air restrictions focus on decreasing automobile and industrial emissions, no conclusive evidence exists that these emission levels are dangerous. Evidence indicates that levels are improving in spite of federal regulations due to better emission-control technologies. What’s not being considered are assertions from some experts that cockroaches may be as much or more of a factor in rising asthma rates as car exhaust. People inhaling the dust and debris in the air caused by the decomposing bodies of cockroaches is thought to be a major reason for increased instances of inner-city breathing disorders. Neglected and dirty public housing projects could actually be the cause of respiratory problems, yet there is nothing in the Clean Air Act or other regulations or programs to address this problem.

While extreme environmentalists want to outlaw the engines that power our cars, they say nothing about cleaning up our public housing. Neither do the politicians who push their policies. Minorities who are trapped in sub-standard public housing in dilapidated, dirty neighborhoods are finding themselves at the short end of ill-focused government programs once again.

Clean Air regulations are not just costly and flawed; they are also unfair. Rather than blindly burdening businesses with excessive regulations, a true government policy of environmental justice would consider the eventual effects imposed by all regulations on minorities, and compensate for them. Current Clean Air regulations do not dispense this sort of environmental justice. Their net effect is not even a healthier environment. Instead, it is an ignored decrease in the standard of living for members of the minority and poor community.


Syd Gernstein is a research associate of The National Center’s African-American leadership network, Project 21. 

1 “Clean Air Act Reform,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, downloaded from on July 12, 2000.

2 “Commonly Available Ethanol and MTBE Blends Do Little to Reduce Smog,” National Academy of Sciences, downloaded from on June 30, 2000.

3 “The Health Effects of Gasoline Constituents,” Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management.

4 “NPRA Opposes Ethanol Mandate; Asks Congress Not To Hinder Efforts To Maintain Supply,” National Petrochemical and Refiners Associations, downloaded from on June 28, 2000.

5 Daniel F. Drummond, “‘Cleaner’ Buses More Expensive, Officials Say,” The Washington Times, July 7, 2000.

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