The American Rescue Plan is an opportunity to tackle inequity in ways we have not dreamed of in generations. Here’s what we need to do next.
What we do in this moment matters. Programs and services for children have never received a down payment of the magnitude seen in the American Rescue Plan, the federal government’s $1.9 trillion relief bill designed to help the nation recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill includes $200 billion largely directed toward children younger than age 16, and the possibilities are electrifying! If we maximize these funds, we can provide more working families with quality affordable child care. We can provide more children and young people with healthy food, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, mental health support, and other critical services.
Comparatively—and shamefully—the American Rescue Plan does little to “rescue” older youth and young adults, especially Opportunity Youth, young people ages 16 to 24 who are disconnected from school and the workforce. That means advocates and organizers have critical work to do to push states and localities to use their flexible fiscal recovery funds to prioritize 16- to 24-year-olds, and not let young people who already were vulnerable before the pandemic emerge even farther behind.
It’s up to all of us—policymakers, advocates, direct-service providers, and community members—to make sure we use these relief dollars well. We also must ensure that this investment is not a one-off, but rather a down payment on sustained and robust investments in kids and young people going forward.
Here’s how we do that.
It’s up to all of us to use these relief dollars as a down payment on sustained and robust investments in youth going forward.
1. Collaborate to Achieve more Equitable Outcomes
We are in a moment of reckoning with the long-standing racial, economic, and geographic inequities in our country. Nearly 60 percent each of Latino and rural families and 55 percent of low-income families live in areas without enough licensed child care providers, according to Center for American Progress. Meanwhile, for every child who attends a public after-school or summer program, there are three children waiting for an available spot, finds Afterschool Alliance.
The American Rescue Plan offers us a chance to remedy these inequities, but only if our federal, state, and local decision-makers collaborate, coordinate, and share resources across service areas. In our current climate, this may seem daunting, but we can look to locations that already do this well to guide us. For instance, 45 communities and 35 states operate Children’s Cabinets. These are organizing councils that bring governmental agencies that support children and youth together to coordinate services, set plans for common outcomes, and collaboratively foster the well-being of young people.
These Children’s Cabinets typically include youth councils. Many cabinets across the country have made real strides toward more authentically sharing power with their young advisors to help set or inform the state or local agenda.
2. Invest in Administrative Support for Service Providers
Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, historically underfunded after-school programs will have access to 3,000 (yes, three thousand) percent more public funding over the next three years. That means states and communities will need more staff to recruit and manage program providers, analyze program outcomes, track resources, and coordinate with schools and families.
This will not be easy. Years of underinvestment and cost cutting of agency staff and resources have left us without the people and data systems necessary to administer the American Rescue Plan effectively and efficiently—including to collaborate across agencies.
State, local, and tribal governments still face significant revenue shortfalls and remain more than 1 million jobs below their pre-pandemic staffing levels. This limited capacity is dangerous since it undermines our ability to identify children who need services and to support accountability for our investments.
It also forces governmental agencies to rely on contractors who, by the nature of their short-term commitments, cannot support lasting improvements. Don’t get me wrong, I often serve as a government contractor myself. However, if we’re serious about expanding equitable, well-coordinated, and sustainable opportunities for children and youth, we must prioritize building government capacity over protecting private business models and hoarding expertise.
We must prioritize building government capacity over protecting private business models and hoarding expertise.
3. Document and Communicate Plans – Accessibly
Large pieces of federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan are confusing, so transparency is essential. Policymakers need to communicate publicly and clearly about how much funding their state or locality received, how they plan to use it, how they hope the funds will help children, and how they will cover any gaps that persist after the federal relief dollars end. Detractors will want to see these resources fail. It is important that decision-makers do not let poor communication or documentation drag down this investment in our children and youth.
Advocates, providers, and young people can push for this transparency by communicating with elected officials (governors, mayors, the heads of agencies and departments), and by using social media, op-eds, letters to the editor, and other public calls for information.
If you’re looking for an example, here’s how young leaders in Iowa called for transparent communication and accountability in how COVID-19 relief dollars were used locally: Activists make demands for how they want Johnson County COVID relief money spent (KCRG News, April 2021).
Marlén Joanne Mendoza, a youth policy consultant and the Community Engagement and Partnerships Manager for SparkAction and the youth-led Youth Action Hour, has this explainer:
4. Create a Strategic Plan Now, to Support Long-term Funding
If we truly want children and youth to thrive, rather than just survive, we must use the American Rescue Plan funds as a down payment on a longer-term and shared investment between federal, state, local, and private dollars. State and local agencies must develop strategic financing plans that plot out how they will sustain these initial investments during the next decade and beyond. These plans should identify program goals, existing revenue sources, and ways to generate additional sustaining funds.
For instance, this past November voters in six different communities voted to tax themselves to support their children. This sets a precedent for securing new revenue at all levels of government and dedicating it to our kids.
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The American Rescue Plan offers an opportunity we have not seen since the New Deal to kick-start meaningful change for our youth. Maximizing that change requires collaboration to coordinate resources. Sustaining that change requires admitting what this type of support really costs and committing to long-term investments.
The young people I worked with when I was an after-school program coordinator 25 years ago now have kids of their own.
We can’t let another generation grow up believing that inequities are acceptable.
The American Rescue Plan Act requires community input on how some of the funding is spent. Written comments and feedback can be submitted by anyone. Check your local state government website, school district website, or your state Department of Education site for feedback forms and opportunities to weigh in on the funding.
You can also:
- Find out more about the American Rescue Plan, how it can help, and what you can do to shape the way your community spends its relief funding in the White House’s American Rescue Plan Act interactive website.
- Use the SparkAction Action Center to connect with your state elected officials, to easily call or email them with your priorities for this funding, and beyond.
Elizabeth Gaines is executive director of Children’s Funding Project, a nonprofit social impact organization that helps communities and states expand equitable opportunities for children and youth through strategic public financing.