Beckley Register-Herald – Across our state, West Virginians are continuing to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis. Food insecurity is spiking, families are facing eviction from their homes because they can’t afford rent, parents are struggling to balance child care and work, and officials are scrambling to figure out how schools can safely reopen in the fall. Link to op-ed here.
Black West Virginians and other residents of color face higher rates of infection and serious illness due to longstanding structural health and economic inequities. On top of it all, community spread is on the rise, with West Virginia seeing record new daily infection rates in the month of July.
Fortunately, the state has a real opportunity to address many of these issues by targeting CARES Act funding to where it is needed most urgently. Last month Governor Justice unveiled his proposal for the $1.25 billion West Virginia received under this legislation for state and local response to the public health emergency. He addressed some important needs with the proposal, including support for small businesses and critical funding for cities and counties to cover unexpected costs incurred due to COVID-19.
However, the governor’s proposal allots over half of the $1.25 billion to the state’s unemployment trust fund, despite the fact that there are established processes for replenishing that fund, namely a loan from the U.S. Department of Labor which West Virginia was approved for in May. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, no interest will accrue on federal loans made to states this year, and principal repayments don’t begin until November 2022. Unlike the state’s general revenue fund and other urgent pandemic-related needs, the unemployment trust fund doesn’t face an immediate funding crisis that could force layoffs and other budget cuts that could slow our economic recovery. Instead of using nearly $700 million to cover something we can fund elsewhere without impacting services, state officials should consider directing these funds to more pressing needs that would help our people.
West Virginia is facing immediate needs stemming from this crisis and policymakers should hear from those most impacted as part of any decision-making process. In Montana, a CRF advisory council, made up of legislators, business owners, nonprofit representatives, city and county officials, and workers, presented a proposal to the state’s governor on the best use of the funds. That proposal, along with a statewide comment period open to the public, was used to guide CARES Act funds to identified needs.
Despite the current lack of a formal advisory council in West Virginia, residents and advocates have lifted up urgent needs that the CARES Act funding could address rather than sending money to less pressing needs like our state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which could be replenished with other funding. Recommendations include:
● Providing direct assistance to people who are struggling to pay rent, utilities, and other bills because of the economic crisis;
● Strengthening our public health response by increasing testing capacity, purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) for businesses and health providers, and allocating funds to employ contact tracers around the state, similar to Wisconsin which allotted $75 million of their CARES Act funds to employing contact tracers;
● Funding each county to provide transportation with their summer feeding programs to ensure that rural students and others are able to access food assistance, similar to Alaska which authorized $125 million of their CARES Act funding for education, child nutrition, and rural transportation;
● Following the lead of forty-four other states and supporting West Virginia’s child care infrastructure by paying child care providers who accept subsidies during this period of closure or low attendance, helping them to stay in business;
● Allocating funding to the K-12 education system to cover the costs of learning and safety changes that will need to be made for the upcoming school year;
● Allotting additional funding to cities and counties, most of whom are facing a double hit of decreased revenues and unexpected costs due to the pandemic; and
● Covering the cost of tracking the pandemic’s disparate impacts across race and other identities, which will be an important step in allowing policymakers to address the underlying causes of inequitable health outcomes.
These are just a few of many ideas and needs put forth by those who are most impacted by the crisis. Bringing all of these people to the table would ensure that West Virginia’s response to the COVID-19 economic and public health crisis is in line with the immense need seen in our communities.
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