Commentary

The federal rescue plan helped rural Virginia. Why not make parts of it permanent?

May 17, 2022 12:02 am

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 26, 2022 (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source New Mexico)

By Anita Royston

In early 2021, rural communities like Pittsylvania County were struggling.

A full year of the pandemic had taken its toll on us — some schools were still closed, health care costs were still going up, many people couldn’t return to work, and even more were struggling to make ends meet. The American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in March 2021, provided a lifeline to families in communities like ours. Thanks to ARPA, rural communities across Virginia survived the worst of the pandemic.

Most importantly, ARPA put money directly in the hands of millions of rural families through the expanded Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. Children living in rural counties are more likely than children in big cities and suburban areas to have benefited from last year’s expansion of the child tax credit. Sadly, the expanded Child Tax Credit expired in January and child poverty has dramatically increased. Congress can and should act today to make that lifeline permanent.

ARPA also made health care more affordable for all families, while ensuring that rural hospitals and health care providers could keep their doors open to serve their communities. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act, families had access to expanded premium tax credits that help make insurance more affordable through the Affordable Care Act. They expire at the end of the year. Again, Congress can and should act to make those expanded credits permanent.

The health care benefits of ARPA don’t end with families. Health care providers in rural communities like Pittsylvania County were especially hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic too, but these hospitals and clinics have long struggled to stay afloat. In fact, 47 percent of rural providers were operating in the red before the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem isn’t new, but it was definitely made worse by the health crisis.

Rural providers play an important role in our small towns and rural communities. To help mitigate some of these pandemic-related financial losses, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began distributing $7.5 billion in ARPA funds to ensure rural hospitals and clinics could keep their doors open, address workforce challenges, and make up for the lost revenues and increased expenses caused by the pandemic.

We should also celebrate the expansion of broadband made possible through this legislation. Many states used their ARPA funding to address the longstanding digital divide. Several states have also prioritized increasing broadband connections for low-income households through line extensions, which expand connectivity to unserved streets and neighborhoods, as well as other affordability measures. Virginia made this a top priority even before ARPA was signed into law, but the additional funding makes the work faster, meaning more people in more communities across the state will have access to high-speed internet years earlier than expected.

ARPA also provided mortgage and rental assistance for rural families, saved small businesses from closing, helped keep schools open, and funded important infrastructure projects in rural communities.

Pittsylvania County Community Action, our local Community Action Agency, also received COVID-19 funds to help citizens during this time. PCCA received funds from a Community Development Block Grant to assist families with utility and rental payments, and from the Older American Act to help seniors meet their daily nutritional needs, and from Health and Human Services to PCCA’s Head Start program to ensure that children continued to be ready to transfer into elementary schools. Despite the shutdown of most businesses, PCCA continued to meet the needs of the citizens as staff could work from home through updated infrastructure.

Given all of the ways the American Rescue Plan Act has made a positive difference in our lives, we should take a minute to ask our elected officials to make these programs permanent. Kids should not be slipping back into poverty. Seniors should not have to choose between rent and medicine. Families should not have to worry about the cost of childcare so that parents can go back to work. Our elected officials, including Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, can make this a reality.

Anita Royston is the president of the Pittsylvania County NAACP and a leader in the Danville Chapter of Virginia Organizing.

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