The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $350 billion funding plan aiming at supporting post-COVID-19 recovery, is often dubbed a once-in-a-generation opportunity for state and local governments. While the main premise may be to solve current issues, there is also hope that this ambitious plan can make communities more resilient to shocks to (inevitably) come in the future. One way to make communities more resilient, of course, is through community engagement.

ARPA has already provided relief to the many local governments grappling with the impact of the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency. But, as is typically the case with large injections of public money, it has also raised questions. Cities and counties across the United States have found themselves ill-prepared to make the most of this golden opportunity. What’s the best way to allocate ARPA funds? How can local governments make these once-in-a-generation investments in a way that is relevant, transparent, and backed by the local community? And how can they think innovatively into the future when they’re also tasked with dealing with the very real problems of today? To answer these questions, let’s zoom in on the example set by the City of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania. 

ARPA-funded community engagement

When the City of Lancaster received $39.5 million in ARPA funds, the Sorace administration and the City Council agreed to prioritize the distribution of those public funds based on research and public input. Giving community members and residents a say would ensure the city’s approach aligned with the community’s most urgent needs.

As a first step, the local administration defined 23 possible funding areas, ranging from internet access and digital literacy to food assistance and affordable housing. These options were then presented to the community, enabling community members to vote on the areas they saw as most critical. A What Is Missing option was added as well, so community members could share ideas for other potential domains in need of public funding. 

In little over a month, no less than 599 people weighed in on the discussion, both on the platform and during several offline community outreach events. Based on the community’s input, the City of Lancaster formulated a list of 10 top priorities:

  • Affordable housing: While the public health crisis urged us to seek safety in our homes, for many affordable housing remained inaccessible. Recognizing housing as a basic human right, affordable housing units made it to the top of Lancaster’s priority list.
  • Behavioral health: Recent studies show that 33% of surveyed US-based workers have reported an increase in stress, anxiety, or sadness since the Covid-19 outbreak. Minimizing these detrimental mental health effects will be crucial for post-pandemic recovery.
  • Homelessness support: This pandemic was particularly hard on individuals experiencing homelessness. Moreover, the pandemic-related economic recession spiked unemployment levels and left many more people facing possible evictions. 
  • Addressing educational disparities: In times of crisis, marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected. With the pandemic keeping students out of classrooms, students of color seemed to be falling behind more than others. Increasing needs for digital tools also saw the digital divide take a toll on school-aged children.
  • Critical home repair: Homes shouldn’t just be affordable, but also comfortable and safe. That’s why the city of Lancaster is prioritizing vital repairs to keep people safely in their homes. 
  • Small business assistance: Many small businesses saw their turnover skyrocket and prospects plummet due to pandemic-related disruptions. It’ll be one of Lancaster’s main priorities to support the vitality and sustainability of local entrepreneurs and small businesses. 
  • Drug overdose & prevention programs: According to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), approximately 275 million people worldwide used drugs to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a 22% increase from 2010, and communities of all sizes are grappling with this reality.
  • Creating housing for displaced tenants: As the pandemic disrupted the livelihoods of many, they found themselves unable to pay rent or displaced by natural disasters that occurred simultaneously. Part of Lancaster’s ARPA funds will be used to shelter those displaced during the pandemic.
  • Internet access & digital literacy. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted most of our life into the digital realm. Internet access is no longer a luxury or a nice-to-have, but a bare requirement to be able to participate in every aspect of daily life. Bridging the digital gap and empowering communities to venture online will be one of Lancaster’s most pressing priorities.
  • Rent & mortgage assistance. With unemployment rates booming during the pandemic, many people have struggled to make ends meet. The City of Lancaster will thus dedicate a portion of its ARPA funds to assisting with rent and mortgage payments. 

The Sorace administration directly involved community members in its conversations about the allocation of ARPA funds, and took their opinions into account when crafting the City’s list of spending priorities to accurately reflect the community’s most pressing needs. These ARPA proposals will be tackled by the City Council on a rolling basis, so residents and stakeholders are free to keep the dialogue on the platform alive, or share new comments.

Getting started with digital community engagement

Wondering how community engagement can help you shape your ARPA allocation strategy? In our beginner’s guide, you’ll learn all about tapping into the collective intelligence of your community to make better, more informed decisions on a wide variety of topics, including budgeting and strategy.