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Biden’s SOTU is a prime opportunity to showcase the reimagination of America’s cities

From the President

President Biden will deliver his first and much-anticipated State of the Union address tonight. From restoring America’s relations with our allies to an expansive federal COVID vaccine program to an astonishingly low unemployment rate, the 46th president can point to significant wins he accrued in the first year of his presidency.

But for those of us who care about the fate of America’s cities, I do hope the president impresses upon the American people the significance of and meaning behind the extraordinary, once-in-a-generation investments his administration made into the people and places that define the national fabric: the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

These legislative achievements are vital down-payments, setting the stage for deeper, more sustained investments that will fundamentally alter the machinery of social change in our cities. Our cities are set to receive unprecedented federal dollars, laying a foundation for exceptional urban transformation, renewal and long-term growth. And I hope to hear President Biden characterize these programs as such to the American people.

Words matter, and it’s almost impossible to count the number of times in the bill’s 2,701 pages that the word “equity,” together with its multiple synonyms, appears. We in the philanthropic community have long championed an emphasis on equity, and to have it echoed by the occupant in the White House marks an exceptional moment for urban policy in the United States.

These massive pieces of legislation are complex, understandably, as federal dollars flowing through both ARPA and the Infrastructure bill envision a spectrum of permissible investment types.  Outright grants to states, counties, school districts, and cities, to be sure. But also, competitive processes, incentives for public-private partnerships, private activity bonds, tax credit programs, and many others that will be prescribed and circumscribed by agency regulation.

That diversity is all for the good. But local government is hemmed in by the timelines, programmatic prescriptions and regulatory constraints the federal government imposes with new legislative initiatives. It’s not generally possible, for example, to shift funds across funding categories. And then there’s the sobering reality that localities must “use it or lose it.” Added to that is the unfortunate reality that the requirements of one federal program often get in the way of – even conflict with – the requirements of another, freezing localities in place lest they run afoul of one agency or the other and risk having to return the money.

We don’t know yet which of these bills’ countless provisions will be a poorly conceived tool or a perfectly designed one. But we do know that the nonprofit sector will need to play an indispensable role in either event. The fact remains that the nonprofit sector often serves as the execution arm of the municipal public policy apparatus.

ARPA and the infrastructure bill’s success will all come down to domestic nonprofits’ abilities to effectively implement these federal dollars. And it will the philanthropic sector’s responsibility to guarantee these nonprofits succeed at this monumental task.

The philanthropic sector will need to ensure that the right organizations are well-positioned, well-resourced and well-informed about the legislation in all its dimensions. Support for this kind of capacity may well be the single most important thing philanthropy can do right now.

I see the following as three key supports philanthropy can provide:

First, focus on rulemaking.

One of the under-sung aspects of the infrastructure bill, for example, is its provision of tools and directives that seek to elevate community residents into meaningful roles as the infrastructure investment decisions begin to cascade into cities, counties and regions.  The rules governing infrastructure expenditures will be technically complex and operationally critical. If this is to be an inflection point in equitable public investments, it will be essential that the rules are very explicit in permitting meaningful engagement from nonprofit implementation partners, equipping them to hold their own in what shouldn’t be, but inevitably will be, a tug-of-war with the construction, architecture, engineering, and development lobbies. Philanthropy can surface concrete suggestions for how to calibrate critical parts of the federal regulatory and oversight apparatus.

Second, share useful proof points.

The bar of aspiration has been raised through hundreds and hundreds of compelling commentaries filled with soaring rhetoric about the moral, economic and political imperatives of using these monies to achieve inclusive, equitable, transformational outcomes. That is a huge service – and one that we hope re-sets the policy narrative. But this rhetoric must be grounded in demonstration. Philanthropy knows how to construct solution sets that benefit exactly the kind of communities and populations of low wealth that this administration has prioritized. We need to lift up our own proof points and our proven ways of working in cities.

Third, prioritize cross-sectoral efforts.

In a similar vein, our sector understands how to set the terms of engagement for the public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to work in collective effort. Assembling a critical path of each sector’s distinct competencies and legitimacies apportioned in the right doses, in correct sequence, and at the right pace is something we have done over and over. Both pieces of federal legislation call out the desirability of pursuing exactly these kinds of coalitions.

There is nothing more complex and difficult than municipal planning and urban reinvention on this scale. But philanthropy will have squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if we don’t try to do exactly that.

Rip Rapson is Kresge’s President & CEO. Follow him on Twitter @RipRapson.