Use federal COVID aid for housing, education and health care, activists urge
New Jersey is brimming with federal pandemic relief funds, sitting on an as yet undesignated $3 billion. Progressive activists see this as an opportunity for state officials to reach out to vulnerable populations and help all residents recover from the pandemic.
At a virtual event on Tuesday they dubbed a “grassroots hearing,” activists criticized the state legislature for failing to hold public hearings on how the billions would best serve the state. They listed potential ways they hope state officials will use US bailout (ARP) funds to directly help struggling residents.
“The governor acknowledged in his budget speech that we need to ask who we are making New Jersey more affordable for, and we couldn’t agree more. That’s why the bulk of the remaining funds should be spent on low-income residents who have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” said Peter Chen of New Jersey Policy Perspective.
The meeting was organized by the For the Many NJ coalition, made up of several progressive advocates and organizations from across the state. Speakers included policy experts, activists and people still recovering from the pandemic – renters, essential workers, homeless residents and people of color.
In previous recessions, states struggled with federal aid that fell short of need and ran out quickly, said Ed Lazere, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.
But during the pandemic, the federal government has recognized that states will need some flexibility to deal with both the immediate impacts of the pandemic as well as “long-standing community challenges,” it said. he declares. He urged state lawmakers to work directly with communities on how best to use the remaining billions.
“New Jersey shouldn’t waste this opportunity…One way or another, the state will soon be allocating over $3 billion in remaining federal funds,” he said. “Residents should have a say in these decisions because all residents have a stake in the outcome.”
Murphy has until December 31, 2024 to allocate the ARP funds. The state has already spent about half of the $6.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds it has received.
What activists and experts want
Wandalynn Miftahi, 63, said she had been homeless for 12 years. She found herself on the streets and hopping from house to house after a divorce left her unable to afford a house. As the cost of living rises, she says, she cannot afford a home without help.
Miftahi criticized Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to use federal funds to recruit police officers and said she would prefer to see up to $1 billion set aside for housing and cash assistance to provide residents of underserved communities with stable, quality shelter. The money should also support job training and childcare, she said, which will give people a better chance.
“Currently, people fear being deported. So there will be a larger homeless population — where will their community be, on the streets? Where will their house be, in the streets? ” she says. “What are we going to do?”
Murphy’s $48.9 billion budget proposal includes $300 million for 3,000 new affordable homes statewide. Larry Holman of New Jersey’s Housing and Community Development Network welcomed the Democratic governor’s plan but urged him to triple that number.
To pay the average two-bedroom rental in the Garden State, workers must earn $31.96 an hour — or work 170 hours a week at minimum wage, he said. This gets worse when the racial wealth gap is taken into account.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to help mitigate and eliminate systemic racism, which keeps black and brown families from accessing homeownership and safe, affordable rental housing,” he said. “We won’t fix it overnight, but we can start today.”
Raquel Romans-Henry, political director of Salvation of Social Justice, also pointed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black communities, from housing to education to access to health care.
New Jersey has the fourth highest maternal mortality rate in the country, and black women are seven times more likely than white women to die giving birth.
Some of the ARP money can be used to invest in health equity, Romans-Henry said, particularly maternal health care and harm reduction. She said state officials should invest in neighborhood maternity care centers in birthing deserts like Trenton.
Several speakers also urged Murphy to replenish the State’s Excluded Workers Fund, a reserve of money reserved for undocumented immigrants and other residents excluded from pandemic relief. Proponents want nearly $1 billion allocated.
The fund, estimated at around $60 million, is expected to help around 30,000 families. More than 400,000 undocumented residents live in New Jersey.
“It’s a shame that half of New Jersey’s ARP federal fiscal stimulus funds still sit unspent and unallocated while families like mine struggle to pay their bills,” said Aida Mucha of Make the Road New. Jersey, a Latino advocacy and labor group. “I have worked throughout the pandemic delivering food to quarantined families, but have been shut out of aid like so many immigrant essential workers.”
Undocumented immigrants have borne the brunt of the pandemic, said Joe Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. They were not only barred from unemployment checks and stimulus funds, but many also had essential jobs where they were forced to weigh the risks of getting sick on the job against how they would financially support their families if they did. they weren’t working, Johnson said.
He also asked lawmakers to consider investing more in student mental health, especially as the effects of learning loss come to light.
“We would like to see funds that are typically used for law enforcement and those types of efforts really redirected to mental health professionals to make sure our students are properly taken care of,” he said. he declares.
Other speakers discussed additional funding for special education services and children coming out of the system, expanding language access programs, investments in health care, especially in communities of color. , and environmental programs like the Clean Energy Fund.
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