Neil D. Steinberg is the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
As the state’s community foundation, we support the recently approved appropriation of $119 million of Rhode Island’s $1.13-billion in American Rescue Plan Act State Fiscal Recovery Funds. And we thank the General Assembly and Governor McKee for their quick work this legislative session in allocating these funds to help children and families, small businesses, the tourism industry, and to provide planning resources for affordable housing and broadband initiatives.
However, we know there’s a long way to go.
In October of last year, in partnership with the Economic Progress Institute and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, we published a robust set of recommendations for state leaders to consider as they decide how to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funding. The recommendations were developed during a rigorous six-month process guided by an engaged, diverse, steering committee and a community engagement process that included idea submissions from hundreds of Rhode Islanders, focus groups with populations hard hit by the pandemic, community visioning sessions hosted by local nonprofits, and key stakeholder interviews. The full set of recommendations is available at www.rifoundation.org/arpa.
The guiding principles for these proposed investments are: equity, sustainability, impact, and process. The recommendations aim to significantly improve the lives of Rhode Islanders, especially those most adversely impacted by the pandemic. We do not recommend spreading the dollars out too broadly. Instead, the aim of the investments should be to address the root causes of systemic inequalities that both predated, and were exacerbated by, COVID-19. These recommendations do not address other earmarked funds such as those for local cities and towns, K-12 education, higher education, or capital projects.
With all of that said, and based on the rigorous policy analysis, input, and feedback considered by the steering committee, we strongly recommend the following areas of investment:
Housing: $405 million
To address the acute shortage of housing in Rhode Island, especially for those with low to moderate income, this recommendation aims to provide at least 5,150 units of affordable housing to Rhode Islanders by investing in rental housing, permanent supportive housing, and homeownership opportunities; remediate lead paint for at least 2,850 units; and renovate and/or repair code violations for at least 4,000 homes.
Behavioral health: $255 million
To address the well-documented, ongoing, epidemic among those battling mental health and substance abuse challenges this recommendation aims to decrease statewide emergency department visits by both children and adults for acute behavioral health crises by 20% each; decrease the number of unintentional opioid overdoses and suicides by 15% each; increase the number of Rhode Island licensed outpatient mental-health counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists to reach New England’s behavioral health-care occupational median.
Workforce development: $205 million
To address the fact that businesses of all sizes in Rhode Island are facing worker shortages, while many residents remain unemployed or underemployed, and are encountering barriers to employment — such as lack of affordable childcare — this recommendation aims to provide 15,000 Rhode Islanders with high-quality jobs through robust training, adult education, workforce skills services, and the elimination of barriers to employment.
Small business assistance: $100 million
As the backbone of Rhode Island’s economy, small businesses require significant additional support to sustain and grow their businesses. This recommendation aims to provide significant financial assistance to at least 2,250 small businesses, targeted to minority-owned businesses, through forgivable loans, low-interest loans, and grants.
Neighborhood trusts: $50 million
Investments, directed by residents in places whose populations and communities have been impacted most by the pandemic may prove to make a significant, innovative impact.
And most importantly, implementation and oversight are critical to address upfront to maximize positive impact. Capacity to implement programs needs to be built up. Utilizing and leveraging these unprecedented funds require robust planning, accountability, and transparency with public/private oversight and leadership. Overall, the state will need to develop new muscles to successfully invest these dollars. We stand ready to help lead and collaborate as-needed to maximize this incredible opportunity.