Advocates warn of ‘COVID cliff’ as Ohio looks to spend remaining federal relief dollars

 A volunteer prepares an order at the Westerville Area Resource Ministry (WARM) food pantry in December 2020.
A volunteer prepares an order at the Westerville Area Resource Ministry (WARM) food pantry in December 2020. [Karen Kasler / Statehouse News Bureau]
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After unveiling a new digital tool that tracks federal relief dollars distributed in Ohio, a collection of advocates said the state needs to put more money into services for low-income Ohioans.

The state received $5.4 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and leaders have distributed $3.5 billion among different sectors. That included paying off a federal debt for unemployment compensation, investments in water and sewer projects, and money for pediatric behavioral health care facilities.

The Ohio Poverty Law Center created a tool with the help of Advocates for Ohio’s Future to track the flow of those federal dollars.

Those groups said that given where the money has already gone, it’s time for the state to put more funds into assistance programs, such as food banks, legal services and offices that process public benefits.

“The name of the American Rescue Plan is to rescue, and the intent is to lift up communities and people who have been most impacted by the pandemic,” said Susan Jagers, director of Ohio Poverty Law Center.

As Jagers explained, Ohio is heading towards a “COVID cliff” where people will lose benefits that have been granted through the national public health emergency. When the public health emergency ends, so too will those benefits.

“Where families — who are struggling and dealing with higher costs of their utilities and other necessities — will lose critical support. The sudden loss of those supports, like SNAP and Medicaid insurance coverage would be a major hit to household budgets,” Jagers said. “So we are asking Governor DeWine and the General Assembly to support families and plan now to allocate ARPA dollars to support families and the providers who serve them.”

DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney said the governor is still reviewing proposals such as one from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

“Governor DeWine's strong preference is to use one-time dollars to fund one-time projects that will make major impacts in Ohio communities, as opposed to funding ongoing expenses,” Tierney said.

In response, Kelsey Bergfeld, director for Advocates for Ohio’s Future, said, “Given the fact that eating is not a one-time thing, we understand that initial pushback. However, this is a crisis moment. This is a crisis moment that was caused by the coronavirus pandemic that a lot of the struggle we still see today.”

The online tool created by the groups follows how much money has been appropriated to each cause and names each municipality and entity that received money. It also details how much money has been spent by local governments that directly received the federal funds.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

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