Under the American Rescue Plan, several state agencies are set to receive significant funding to help address the effects of the pandemic. For example, the Department of Education has an additional $4.3 billion for emergency relief for public schools, the Department of Early Care and Learning received an additional $607 million for child care assistance and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities can use an additional $91 million for substance abuse treatment.
Although these federal dollars went directly to relevant agencies, many still have broad latitude when deciding how best to use these dollars. As agency leaders determine what these dollars will be used for, they should consider three principles:
- Targeting aid to those most in need due to the COVID-19 and consequent economic crises.
- Addressing long-standing racial inequities created and maintained by racist policies and exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Maintaining transparency.
Principle One: Targeting aid to those most in need due to the COVID-19 and consequent economic crises.
As agencies determine how best to spend dollars from the federal government, they should look to who was most affected by the pandemic and resultant economic crisis. The pandemic hit Georgia particularly hard because of years of disinvestment in programs and services related to health, economic mobility and more, and our state leaders responded by slashing funding for critical services and programs meant to support families rather than bolstering investments that foster resilience and recovery—further exacerbating the pandemic’s effects. Thus, agency leaders should address the needs of those families who were not adequately supported when facing unemployment, virtual school, child care needs, additional stress on their mental health and other pandemic-related issues. For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that mental health concerns rose during the pandemic, particularly for young people. Georgia should amend its state Medicaid plan to provide mental health and substance use related services in schools, ensuring the services are covered by Medicaid and are eligible for federal financial support.
Principle Two: Addressing long-standing racial inequities created and maintained by racist policies and exacerbated by the pandemic.
State funding is not race-neutral. Because of historical and current racist policies and practices like Jim Crow, work reporting requirements and waiting periods for legal permanent resident immigrants to access Medicaid, the pandemic was particularly harmful for communities of color. In fact, even as some claim the economy is recovering, clear inequities exist. In February 2021, unemployment claims for Black Georgians were 71 percent higher than those of white Georgians alone. Recovery efforts are leaving out women of color in particular, and disproportionately high unemployment faced by Black and Hispanic women reflects gender and racial bias in hiring, as well as how more women than men have been forced to choose between their professions and unpaid caregiving for their young children or elderly family members. It is critical that funding in every department addresses these inequities to ensure a robust recovery.
For example, the University System of Georgia and Technical College System of Georgia are set to receive $1.2 billion, about half of which must go directly to support students. Colleges and universities must prioritize grants to students with exceptional need. All students enrolled during the COVID-19 emergency are eligible to receive federal emergency grants, including U.S. citizens, permanent residents, international students, refugees, asylum seekers, participants in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and similar undocumented students. Schools should include and prioritize undocumented students and those participating in DACA, many of whom face exceptional financial need due to policies that bar them from state and federal financial aid and require them to pay tuition rates three to four times higher than their peers. Many immigrants and their families were left out of past federal relief payments. Federal aid can help address the financial inequities that limit higher education opportunities for these students.
Principle Three: Maintaining transparency.
Agencies are required to share how they spend federal dollars, but transparency cannot end there. As state leaders seek to decide how best to spend these funds, they should be open to feedback and transparent about allocations in advance. For example, the Georgia Department of Education (GADoE) opened a public comment period to solicit suggestions for funding before releasing their plan. This is a positive step in the right direction; however, the feedback period was too short (although the quick turnaround may have been due to federal guidelines, not state action) and did not prioritize communities most affected by the pandemic. Fund Georgia’s Future, a coalition GBPI is part of, submitted a comment requesting more time and targeted outreach. Other agencies should take note and solicit public feedback before deciding how to use funds.
The funding provided to Georgia agencies under the American Rescue Plan can be a powerful tool to help address the disparate effects of COVID-19 so that every community has the resources needed to thrive. If agency leaders maintain transparency, address inequities and target communities most harmed by the pandemic, these dollars can jumpstart recovery.