University of Michigan: Washtenaw County should consider long-term impact, implementation of ARPA allocations

A new policy brief from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative offers recommendations for ways to target funding to key programs and priorities, focus on program implementation, and consider long-term impacts as Washtenaw County leaders decide how to allocate the rest of its American Rescue Plan Act money.

With about half of Washtenaw County’s $71 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated, U-M researchers evaluated the county’s spending priorities to offer new insights on strategies to maximize long-term impact and promote equity with the one-time spending.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provides $350 billion in federal funding for state and local governments to assist with pandemic recovery for small businesses, households and hard-hit industries, and replace lost revenue for government services. Washtenaw County has received the $71 million over two allotments in May 2021 and May 2022, and the county’s Board of Commissioners has voted on how to spend $36 million of the funds so far.

“These funds will be substantial in aiding the county’s pandemic recovery efforts. With more money to be allocated and distribution decisions still undetermined, this is an opportunity to maximize the impact of the ARPA funds to increase equity within Washtenaw County,” said Amanda Nothaft, senior data and evaluation manager at Poverty Solutions and author of the policy brief, “One-time Spending for Long-term Impact: Evaluating Washtenaw County’s American Rescue Plan Act Allocations.”

While Washtenaw County boasts high levels of educational attainment, relatively high incomes and good health outcomes, these overall metrics hide wide disparities in outcomes for residents in different parts of the county. Access to opportunity in Washtenaw County is often tied to race and place.

Poverty Solutions partnered with the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development to revamp the Washtenaw County Opportunity Index, which combines 16 indicators into five categories of opportunity—health, job access, economic well-being, education and training, and community engagement and stability—to identify which parts of the county experience the highest and lowest levels of access to opportunity.

Washtenaw County commissioners formally committed in 2021 to use the Opportunity Index to apply an equity lens to their decision making and county initiatives. ARPA funds provide a unique opportunity to bolster the county’s current efforts to eliminate gaps in opportunity and promote equity, Nothaft said.

The policy brief offers an evaluation of Washtenaw County’s current ARPA allocations, which include:

Navigation and financial assistance to help families find child care
Creation of Children’s Savings Accounts for all public school students
Broadband expansion
Expanding access to home weatherization services
Investing in the Washtenaw County Health Department
Launching a Mobile Support Services Initiative
Creating a Community Priority Fund to provide funding to organizations serving communities with low access to opportunity that were hit hard by the pandemic
The evaluation recommends considering the number of people eligible and amount of money dedicated to the currently-funded initiatives to determine whether additional funds are necessary to achieve the intended impact. The policy brief also cautions against creating too many new initiatives and programs that will not have sustainable funding sources once the ARPA money is spent, and instead points to the value of investing in projects like water, transportation, and neighborhood infrastructure that will have long-term impact after a single infusion of funds.

Distributing ARPA money via grants and in partnership with community organizations should include a process to ensure the recipients have the capacity and track record to accomplish what they propose and that their interventions are backed by evidence and have measurable outcomes.

According to the policy brief, the goals of closing gaps in educational, economic and health outcomes by bringing services to people in need and providing funding to organizations that work within the community can only be met if these programs are fully funded and carefully implemented.

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