By Maria F. Campos-Harlow
The Wallingford Town Council is currently in the process of deciding how to invest the ARPA funds received from the federal government. There have been several discussions about the funding priorities. The initial proposed priorities have been grants to businesses, individuals, and nonprofits deeply affected by the two-year pandemic. Not only were they devastated by the lockdowns and other disruptions, but they are still trying to recover from the damage, and will be for some time to come. These grant priorities are the exact ones at which our efforts must be aimed.
The fourth option that is being widely discussed is municipal capital investments. Because my career has allowed me to actually witness the tragic circumstances people have found themselves in these past two years, I find it very hard to understand how can this be considered as a priority. The rationale appears to be that such investments in recreation facilities and the like will benefit the entire community. I am a Wallingford resident, and yes, my family and I would love to benefit from the projects that have been proposed. But is this the right use of this funding? If funds are limited, and they most certainly are, should we not be carefully investing in the human beings who the pandemic has hurt most?
As the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully recedes, it is clear that we are now divided into three groups of people: 1) those who are thriving (and that is great! It is so good to know that not everything is dark and gloomy); 2) those of us who did not suffer any serious impact, and 3) those who were severely affected by the pandemic, who, by the way, tend to be (although not exclusively) those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
This third group of hundreds if not more Wallingford residents is why the legislation was named the American RESCUE plan. If they weren’t the ones who completely lost their jobs, they were those essential workers that kept us going, were directly exposed to the virus, and thus got sick at higher rates. They were the ones that, if they missed work, didn’t get paid. They were the ones who ended up underinsured or uninsured. They were the ones that didn’t have flexibility with their work schedules to be able to stay at home with their kids when there was no school for long periods of time. They were the ones who worried about how they were going to put food on the table, or pay rent, or utilities, child care, or their healthcare needs. The list goes on and on and on. This nightmare went on for over a year and a half, and they need our help to recover from it.
Our local nonprofits have been and continue to be at the forefront of the pandemic response. They have the pulse of the community, especially those in the community described in the paragraph above. They know about the needs and they have the expertise to properly respond to those needs. With the appropriate resources they can implement initiatives that will help uplift those who are struggling and help our community thrive. ARPA funding is the perfect opportunity to do that.
The Wallingford Community Resource Alliance, that includes our network of nonprofits and community partners such as the Wallingford Public Schools and the Wallingford Department of Youth and Social Services, are currently conducting a community needs assessment resulting from the pandemic. We are mapping out existing resources to make sure that we maximize their use and avoid unnecessary duplications, and the last step will be to identify the gaps and what agencies are in the best position to address them. Our goal is to have a coordinated and strategic approach to respond to the need resulting from the pandemic. This is the type of investment that our community needs to recover from the pandemic. These programs and resources will be available to all members of our community who are in need.
To those councilors and community members who are looking for community-wide benefit, this is your answer. With this you could address access to mental health, socialization, recreation, education, broadband, workforce development. When you lift up the lives of those individuals, businesses and nonprofits most affected by the pandemic, you do indeed benefit the entire community.
The fact that other communities are making municipal capital improvements a priority doesn’t make it right. Yes, capital improvements benefit the entire community, but this funding is not about benefiting the entire community. Those of us who weathered the pandemic comfortably should pay for those projects.
ARPA funding gives us a unique opportunity to do something meaningful to provide long-lasting solutions to the struggles suffered by many of our neighbors. Helping them recover must be our priority. If you are looking for a benefit to the entire community, surely this is it.
Maria F. Campos-Harlow is executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.