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This commentary was originally published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
In the past year or so, Congress has passed the largest stimulus bill in American history — twice. Almost $6 trillion has been allocated in response to Covid-19 to date, and at least $3.7 trillion has been disbursed or committed. These have been critical investments to help small businesses and unemployed workers get to the other side of this crisis.
Despite this funding, we still hear from many people across our district [Federal Reserve’s Fifth District, which covers South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, D.C., West Virginia, and Maryland] that they are struggling to pay the rent, feed their families, and stay connected to work and school — even though these are areas Congress has targeted.
For example, $47 billion has been allocated specifically for emergency rental assistance, yet the Philadelphia Fed estimates that the 1.8 million renter households in arrears still owe $11 billion in rent. And roughly $70 billion has been directed toward nutrition assistance, but 45 million people (including 15 million children) were projected to face food insecurity in 2020.
When it comes to broadband, between 18 million and 42 million people don’t have access to high-speed service. More than $13 billion has been made available during the pandemic to expand access and help people pay their bills, and the American Rescue Plan includes the potential for up to $10 billion in additional investment. That’s in addition to the roughly $30 billion that had been dedicated to broadband before the pandemic. But our analysis suggests that less than half of this prior funding has been distributed due to challenges with application approvals, map definitions and the like. So we could see difficulties with the latest rounds of funding as well.
What is standing between the trillions of dollars in support and the people who need it? Talking with community leaders throughout our district, we’ve heard four key themes. Whether communities are working to provide short-time emergency aid (such as housing assistance) or long-term infrastructure (such as broadband), delivering the “last mile” requires awareness, capacity, simplification and alignment.
The first challenge is awareness: It’s hard to apply for help if you don’t know it exists. In a February survey, for example, the rental management company Avail found that almost 48 percent of landlords and 69 percent of renters didn’t know government rental assistance was available. And even people who are aware that programs exist might not know how to find a local program or how to apply. Similarly, many adults don’t know that there’s an emergency broadband benefit coming to help them pay their internet bills. (Takeup has also been quite low for the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) Lifeline subsidy program, which predates the pandemic.) The solutions to raise awareness don’t have to be complicated — but they require knowing who you’re serving and what they need. For example, when we talked with Hispanic business and community leaders in Manassas, Va., last month, we heard that reaching immigrant populations has been especially challenging. Providing translation assistance and sharing information through trusted local groups can go a long way.
Another challenge is that many communities don’t have the capacity — either in terms of people or in terms of technology — to distribute funding. Looking again at rental assistance, state and local governments have been responsible for administering these programs from beginning to end: getting the word out, determining eligibility, reviewing applications, distributing payouts and all the tasks in between. That’s a lot to do in a short time, especially amid an unprecedented public health crisis. As a result, many local governments have partnered with nonprofit organizations to increase their capacity and try to meet the demand, but these nonprofits are themselves trying to adapt their operations and increase their bandwidth.
We see similar challenges with nutrition assistance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has bought billions of dollars of produce, meat and dairy products from farmers who have lost business due to closed schools and restaurants, and distributed the food to local food banks nationwide. But especially at the beginning of the pandemic, many food banks didn’t have the logistical capacity — not to mention the storage space — to manage the increase in supply and demand, and they’ve been racing to keep up.
A little bit of money (at least relative to the stimulus) can go a long way, though. The Annie E. Casey Foundation provided $100,000 to hire a consultant to assist the City of Baltimore in developing and coordinating temporary rental assistance and enhanced eviction prevention programs with multiple city agencies. Collectively, these agencies will distribute more than $40 million of CARES Act and other funding to support renter households experiencing Covid-19-related income and job loss.
Capacity was a challenge before Covid-19 as well. Take broadband funding, which is traditionally distributed to local groups through grants from national entities, such as the FCC or the USDA. But applying for these grants is a complicated process and requires a community to have the capacity to research eligibility — to understand and compete for various available grants, to fund technical support for successful proposals and partnerships, and to measure and record actual broadband access (or lack thereof). That’s why organizations like the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which serves West Virginia and Southwest Pennsylvania, are so important. They provide grants to communities to help them fill gaps in necessary technical support costs and federal match requirements so they can develop the resources they need to take advantage of broadband funding.
The third challenge we’ve heard is the complicated constraints that accompany government funding. Of course, we want the government to be careful with our tax dollars, but stipulations about when and how the money has to be spent don’t always align with local needs. For example, we’ve been talking with educators from throughout the region for our District Dialogues series. One superintendent we spoke with shared that CARES Act funding has been valuable to help pay for digital resources and other supplies but can’t be used for operations. So if the school district wants to extend the school day or provide extra tutoring to help students address pandemic-related learning loss, it has to take money from other places in its budget. Simplifying restrictions and giving local jurisdictions more autonomy could help get the money to where it’s needed most.
So what does it take to increase awareness, build capacity and navigate complicated waters? When we look at the success stories, the common theme is effective alignment through partnerships — nonprofits, local governments, and private companies pulling in the same direction. Working together creates a sense of shared investment, shared cost, and enables groups to come up with more creative solutions. For example, in Virginia, Commonwealth Connect hosts regular calls between public and private entities to help them be on the same page as advocates for broadband. This model allows groups with different focus areas and resources to clarify what funding is available, where the needs are, and which solutions are working. In Maryland, the Baltimore County government recognized it didn’t have the capacity to implement an effective eviction prevention strategy, so they engaged the United Way of Central Maryland to work with landlords. United Way is now talking with two other jurisdictions about replicating this arrangement.
The massive fiscal support that’s been mobilized since last March helped prevent the U.S. economy from falling off a cliff and continues to support households and businesses. But Congress allocating funds is only the first step. Making real progress requires concentrated work to raise awareness, build capacity, simplify processes and keep us marching in the same direction.
Tom Barkin is the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond