Each of Iowa’s nearly 1,000 small cities could create a compelling list of needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic — ranging from affordable housing and jobs to wastewater treatment infrastructure and pandemic eradication. These cities of fewer than 50,000 have an opportunity and, in many cases, a daunting challenge of completing the reporting requirements to fulfill those needs with funding through the American Rescue Plan Act. Our larger communities and governmental agencies with greater resources need to step up to the plate to provide technical assistance.
This week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will request the $221 million (a two-year allocation) from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) for the small cities, referred to as Non-Entitlement Units (NEUs) for Local Government by the U.S. Treasury Department. Guidance from the federal government has evolved, and the state is partnering with the Iowa League of Cities and city leadership across Iowa to address the logistics. “We want cities to know the process and make the best decisions for their communities,” said Michael Bousselot, director of the Iowa Department of Management. When the governor requests the funds, “cities will only have 30 days to act and we believe that working with cities before drawing down the funds makes for a more effective and informed process meaning funds to projects faster.”
As cities scramble to get plans in place, it is essential that elected leaders at all levels of Iowa’s government listen to the voices of the people who live in these communities and can testify to the ramifications of the pandemic and needs resulting from it. Our Catholic Social Teaching tradition teaches us that we are to meet the needs of the least among first, the most vulnerable, the people left at the margins. We do so by giving voice to the needs of the least among us, in our city council meetings, in our county board meetings and in letters to Gov. Reynolds and our state legislators (legis.iowa.gov/legislators).
Giving voice to the least among us is the overarching purpose of a survey prepared by the Iowa City Catholic Worker and a group of churches in Muscatine, Louisa and Johnson counties. The survey is being circulated in several parishes in our diocese: St. Patrick-Iowa City, St. Joseph-Columbus Junction, St. Joseph-West Liberty and Ss. Mary & Mathias-Muscatine, which have higher populations of immigrants. The preamble of the survey encourages “elected officials to support our communities and use public money for the Common Good. With this survey, we are asking for your input on how these funds could best be used to support essential workers excluded from prior rounds of pandemic relief.”
These essential workers include undocumented immigrants and persons previously incarcerated, among others. Ninoska Campos, an immigrant from Honduras, is one of the essential but excluded workers. A member of the Iowa City Catholic Worker community, she said she works 16 hours a day at two jobs to support her two children because her husband was deported during the pandemic. She works at a fast food restaurant and cleaning rooms in a hotel. During the pandemic, she was temporarily unemployed but did not receive pandemic assistance. She pays $700 annually for a work permit.
Last month, faith leaders from across Johnson County signed a letter to their elected leaders stating their support for an Excluded Workers Fund paid for by American Rescue Plan funds. “This fund would provide desperately needed economic assistance to our undocumented and recently incarcerated neighbors, hazard pay for all low-wage workers and transformational investments in housing, transportation, farming and paid sick leave. Excluded workers from across Johnson County and beyond have been cruelly battered by a year of lost income to themselves and their families,” the letter writers said.
Iowa City Catholic Worker co-founder David Goodner estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 excluded workers live in Johnson County. He also points out that some 40,000 tenants in Iowa rental units face eviction when the federal eviction moratorium ends July 31. The Catholic Church teaches that a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. The church also teaches that workers have a right to productive work, and to decent and fair wages.
Many needs exist in Iowa’s cities, including its big cities, which are in the process of deciding how to spend their funds, which come to them directly from the U.S. Treasury. We, the citizens of Iowa, need to help decide which of those great needs to address first. That’s why Father Joseph Sia, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, chose to have a needs survey placed in the parish bulletin. “Any citizen ought to have their voice heard as far as expenditures of the American Rescue Plan.”
May we all give voice to the needs of our cities as we move slowly out of the pandemic, focusing on our church’s call to seek together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor