With lack of any access to broadband connectivity currently causing hardship for over 100,000 West Virginians, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights how truly essential this access is for our communities. From tele-medicine services that keep patients connected to doctors without leaving their homes to increased reliance on remote work and the need for virtual schooling because of widespread COVID-19 cases, access to reliable broadband has become a critical tool for being able to navigate our world amid the pandemic.
Indeed, access to a reliable internet connection could determine if more than 100,000 West Virginia residents can file for and receive more than $100 million in critical cash assistance made available to them via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March.
Economic Impact Payments –commonly referred to as “stimulus checks”– are a key provision of the CARES Act and are intended to help reduce the financial burden of COVID-19. These direct cash payments of $1200 per individual (and $500 per qualifying child) have provided billions of dollars of relief for families across the country. Yet, obstacles remain ahead of the October 15th deadline for low-income families to file for and receive this critical support.
Most West Virginians received their stimulus payments automatically after filing a federal income tax return with the IRS. However, for low income families who do not have to file — those making less than $12,200 if filing single and $24,400 if married and filing jointly — extra steps must be taken to obtain stimulus payments.
Namely, those eligible have to complete an online form commonly known as the IRS Non-Filer Tool to receive their $1200 stimulus payments. With West Virginia consistently ranking near last among states in broadband connectivity, low-income residents find themselves at a disadvantage connecting with essential pandemic relief at the time when they need it the most.
West Virginia is an historically poor state with the fourth highest poverty rate in the nation. The median household income is just over $44,000, the worst in the country and 29 percent below the national average. Poverty disproportionately impacts the state’s Black residents, with 26 percent living in poverty compared with 17 percent of white residents.
Data from the U.S. Census Pulse Survey collected during the pandemic shows significantly higher rates of food and housing insecurity for minority communities compared to their white counterparts. According to the most recent data, Black and Latino households experienced food insecurity at more than twice the rate of white households. Black and Latino households also reported being behind on rent at nearly twice the rate of white households.
Access to the $1200 stimulus payment would help many low-income families, especially considering that they are likely struggling with COVID-related hardship the most. Yet, the digital divide can make accessing the internet connection necessary to file for the payment out of reach, especially for communities of color. As the graph below shows, only 21.2% of white households nationwide lack access to broadband or a computer, while 36.4% of Black households and 30.3% of Hispanic households experience this same lack of access.
While community organizations across the state are working together to connect low-income West Virginians with the estimated $100+ million dollars in CARES Act stimulus payments they have yet to file for, the administration of Governor Jim Justice is in a unique position to help.
Low-income populations are most at risk of missing out on the stimulus payment, and safety net initiatives like TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid are likely to already be serving them. Strategic outreach from the folks administering these benefits to our friends and neighbors receiving them has the potential to efficiently connect these clients with the resources they need to file and receive their stimulus payments.
While the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) has utilized their social media accounts to raise awareness of this issue, it is unknown at this time if DHHR is conducting specific outreach to TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid clients to help bridge the gap between those struggling the most during the pandemic and the direct cash assistance that could provide them significant relief.
Simply making sure people are aware that the $1200 stimulus payment does not count against their current federal aid would go a long way to dispel concerns that some low-income West Virginians have about filing, and this effort is well worth the staff time considering there is more than $100 million dollars at stake.
To go further, Governor Jim Justice can follow Alabama’s lead and choose to leverage CARES Act funding to expand internet access to low-income and Black and brown West Virginians. Closing the digital divide for our neighbors who are struggling not only has the potential to connect more families with their $1200 stimulus payments, but it can also serve as a way to address racial disparities in health and education by ensuring that telemedicine provisions and online learning opportunities are available to all West Virginians.
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