We face a historic, pivotal moment. The emphatic and widespread calls for racial justice in our communities in the midst of the greatest public health and financial crisis in a generation require that we make an essential down payment for a resilient and equitable economic recovery for our nation. We must invest now in the fundamental array of services that support the ability of all of us to live, learn, work, and stay connected. Investing in state and local human services agencies and the community providers they work with is imperative to ensure that we are equipped to meet the social and economic challenges we face now and for the long haul.
Responding to the rapid and widescale economic disruption felt throughout the country will not be an easy feat. The May unemployment rate, while slightly lower than April, remains at a level not seen since the Great Depression. And the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic spotlight the many ways our systems have enabled and exacerbated structural inequities tracing race and income lines. Unemployment rates for Black and Latinx workers remain disproportionately higher than the national average, and at the same time, these communities face higher exposure and more severe health effects from COVID-19. Congress can take immediate steps to help communities build well-being from the ground up by investing dollars where they are most needed to stabilize families and create economic boosts.
Human Services Budgets and Infrastructure
In moments of crisis, human services—which include resources that keep families fed and housed during tough times, transition people back to work, and ensure the safety and well-being of children and families—are needed most. It is these very services that help stabilize people and communities in order to weather life’s inevitable ups and downs, including during periods of widespread duress. In concert with health, education, justice, and other public systems, human services work to prevent further harm and provide the foundation for social and economic mobility.
Yet, it is during these times that cash-depleted state and local governments are under-resourced to support this vital work. With immediate and substantial increases in demand for food assistance seen throughout the nation and further demand expected for basic assistance and work supports as temporary pandemic unemployment benefits are set to expire, sustained impacts of the economic and public health crisis have and will continue to result in poorer economic, health, and well-being outcomes with disproportionate impacts on communities of color.
State and local human services agencies need immediate support from the Federal government in order to respond to the increase in demand from their communities, be strategic about investments in communities hardest hit, and maintain the critical role human services plays in our infrastructure. Considering the unprecedented length of the COVID-19 crisis—and the possibility of a resurgence of cases putting us back in response mode—it is essential that we equip states and localities with sufficient resources now to invest in the tools they already have to assure safety and economic well-being and position all communities for upward mobility.
Employment and Economic Well-Being
The public health effects of the pandemic have created waves that are rippling through the economy. Industry sectors like retail, restaurants, entertainment, and construction—all of which depend on low-income workers disproportionately—have been hit particularly hard and face major questions in their comeback. If workers are going to achieve economic mobility in the long-term, policymakers must ensure impacted workers have the basic assistance they need in the short-term. Increasing temporary economic assistance and work supports through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and aligning services to reflect the current needs of workers as well as employers are ways the Federal government can further strengthen human services agencies’ ability to help people re-enter the economy safely.
With unemployment rates at historic highs, and schools and child care centers where children receive meals closed, there has been a sharp increase in families that rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to meet basic nutritional needs. SNAP is one of the most effective per dollar federal investments to boost local employment with studies showing that each dollar invested in SNAP results in a 150% return in GDP. With heightened demand for SNAP, increased Federal investment in this service is a necessary step to support workers and stabilize families. The solutions we put forth must prioritize strategies that get food in the hands of people as quickly as possible while leaving nobody without basic nutritional needs.
Child and Family Well-Being
Stay-at-home orders and increased financial challenges have created new and emerging family stressors making it increasingly important for child welfare agencies to remain adaptable and proactively prevent and mitigate the trauma families are experiencing. Charged with ensuring children can stay safely in their homes with their families, these agencies support economic, housing, and mental health needs. This can be accomplished by investing in innovative community engagement strategies designed to connect families with trusted resources in times of social isolation, supporting youth aging out of foster care, and providing additional resources for parents and caregivers for those at-risk of or who have entered the foster care system.
As our country begins the road to recovery, state and local human services agencies are an integral piece to this complex but solvable puzzle. By recognizing the backbone role of human services and making investments now, we have the opportunity to move forward prioritizing values that will help us build towards a better nation for all.