Congress and the Biden Administration allocated record sums of federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and build more equitable and resilient communities. This once-in-a-lifetime funding can advance health equity and address historic underinvestment in health and social needs for marginalized communities.
Much of the funding in this legislation is appropriated directly to health and human services programs. Other funding–referred to as fiscal relief funding for state and local governments–may be allocated, at the discretion of state and local grantees, for health and human services programs with the goal, according to the Department of Treasury, of addressing “the systemic public health and economic challenges that may have contributed to more severe impacts of the pandemic among low-income communities and people of color.”
At their heart, health and human services agencies’ try to address this goal by connecting millions of people facing adversity to things that help them thrive like food, health care and job opportunities by running and evaluating various programs with services at the state and local levels. Health and human services professionals try to consider families’ holistic needs and connect the dots for the people they serve. Taking a similar connected, holistic approach can ensure that the new federal funding supports programs that truly address upstream needs.
To use this money wisely, health and human services agencies must work across the health care, public health, and social services sectors to better address the complex, community-level barriers to good health.
Aligning in Crisis, a program led by the Georgia Health Policy Center in partnership with George Washington University’s School of Public Health and with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, created four principles for leaders to maximize the federal investments and lay the foundation for an equitable response to future crises:
- Aligning sectors and efforts is critical to advance health and equity. An approach that deploys the siloed federal relief and recovery investments in holistic and forward-looking ways can address disparities and advance equity for generations to come.
- A coordinated strategy guides the work and investments. While the funds will flow in silos it is important to have strategies at the state and local levels that braid funds together to implement a comprehensive vision for more resilient states and communities. The most effective strategies will be goal-oriented and community driven.
- Intermediary organizations are ready and able to assist. On-the-ground organizations including local foundations, public health institutes, community coalitions and collaboratives, and community development financial institutions can partner with cities, counties, and state government to plan and carry out the work.
- Community leadership drives lasting change. Amplifying the voice of community members is imperative at each step in the planning and implementation process to ensure changes are truly driven for and by residents. Community participation and leadership helps ensure the vision reflects the true needs and goals of the community, particularly residents most affected by the triple crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic struggles, and the ongoing impact of systemic racism.
By applying these tenets, health and human services staff can ensure the recovery funds are invested in ways that can address disparities and advance equity for generations to come.
Health and human services agencies are already making strides to better align sectors in a variety of areas. The Linked Information Network of Colorado (LINC), for example, supported by the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, offers a centralized data hub for the Colorado Department of Human Services and seven other state and regional agencies to better evaluate outcomes across systems. This hub enables policymakers, health and human services professionals, and agencies to answer questions that improve policies and programs with cross-system, more holistic data. According to LINC this might include identifying risk factors for homelessness among youth who are exiting foster care or improving cross-system prevention and intervention services for newborns exposed to substances.
Share Our Strength’s Coordinating SNAP and Nutrition Supports project, in partnership with APHSA, convenes human services and public health agencies. Six state and local projects connect SNAP benefits with other nutrition supports to reduce childhood hunger and reduce inequities across the programs. New approaches include sharing cross-sector data between SNAP and WIC programs and improving referrals between SNAP and community-based partners that address hunger and other social determinants of health. Some projects such as one in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, intentionally engage “customers” and community members to collect feedback and inform efforts. Lessons learned from this program will inform state and local best practices and influence federal policy recommendations that advance cross-program alignment.
Coordination like this in states and communities is required to build integrated, cost-effective, and outcome-focused systems. Such an approach links programs and sectors together in a way that is human-centered and allows health and human services professionals to best provide support and get to the root causes of systemic inequities.
If the influx of federal relief funding is approached in a similar aligned way—holistic, coordinated, and with intermediaries and community leadership—communities can use the funds to support health equity and address longstanding health disparities.
Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9