Over the last 19 months our community has actively responded and adapted to the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. County and community came together to work to minimize the health and economic impacts of the pandemic—from massive testing, tracing and vaccination efforts, to expanded food and housing supports, even to neighbors and faith communities caring for each other.
To date, Santa Clara County invested nearly $719 million in these activities, with our local cities, nonprofits and philanthropic partners scaling up their investments as well.
Now we must turn our eyes to future recovery and to building a healthier, safer, more vibrant community. This virus, like others in the past, exposed and exploited social and economic inequities resulting in higher rates of transmission, illness and death in historically marginalized or at-risk groups. Low wage workers, people of color, people living in congregate settings and others have borne the greatest brunt of both the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Focusing on equity is essential to our collective recovery.
I want to share five priorities where I believe we must concentrate investments as they relate to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds:
- Investment in early childhood
- Expanded access to mental health supports
- Strengthened safety net systems
- Investment in community-based alternatives to the criminal-legal system
- Support for our small businesses
Many of these priorities have been raised among our response partners and community advocates throughout the pandemic. Many of these challenges are not new. But we face a new imperative to address them as we plan the path ahead.
I want to thank all those that submitted recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, spoke on public comment and worked in community to elevate these issues including the REAL Coalition, the Race and Health Disparities Task Force, the Downtown San Jose Recovery Task Force, the Coalition of Leaders Serving the Latinx Community, the Silicon Valley Recovery Roundtable and the Essential Workers Council.
Arguably the biggest gap made clear is the importance of investment in early childhood and its ripple effect on working families. The 19 months of disruptions contributed to reduced learning opportunities for children, especially during critical developmental years, and reduced ability of their caregivers to work—with significant economic impact on families and especially women.
These interruptions have also led to the closure of many childcare businesses, impacting mostly women and women of color, which hinders our ability to scale up and get back to work.
Investments here can ensure that all children in Santa Clara County have access to affordable, conveniently located childcare, resulting in better outcomes for children, greater economic stability for families and higher productivity for employers.
The second priority is access to appropriate levels of mental or behavioral health supports when needed for every individual in Santa Clara County.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis, about four in 10 adults nationwide reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder—a four-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels. These increases have been more pronounced among youth, women, unpaid caregivers, people of color, people with disabilities and people in occupational groups that have been impacted by the pandemic.
We need to expand investment, scale up our infrastructure to provide more care and plan strategically with our providers, stakeholders and patients for a more robust, flexible system in the future that can meet patients where they are across a continuum of care.
The third priority to strengthen the safety net systems will ensure that every individual in Santa Clara County has access to a safe and stable place to sleep every night, access to sufficient, nutritious food every day, high quality health care and the opportunity to work and earn a wage sufficient to provide for their needs.
Economic impacts of the pandemic were not evenly distributed across our community. Low-wage workers, women and people of color suffered the brunt of the economic devastation of the pandemic with serious risk of loss of housing and inability to pay for necessities. These challenges will not be immediately reversed as the virus is brought under control and will require sustained efforts to rebuild economic security and stabilize families.
The fourth priority is to invest in community-based alternatives to the criminal-legal system and to continue to reduce the population of people who are incarcerated pre-trial—which is about 80% of the total population in custody.
Jails, like other congregate settings, can amplify communicable diseases in a community. In response to the pandemic and for the safety of people who are incarcerated, staff and the community at large, it was necessary to dramatically reduce the population of the jails to stem transmission. This successful effort demonstrated that it is possible to reduce costly incarceration without sacrificing public safety. This progress should be maintained, and the county should pursue meaningful and creative efforts to support effective alternatives to incarceration to promote public safety and health.
The last identified priority is supporting our small businesses, primarily by growing our small business grant program to better help those hardest hit by the pandemic and shelter in place order. By supporting these small businesses, we will help families who built proven ways to support themselves and ensure the jobs they provide are kept intact for those relying on them.
Several of these priorities are addressed, at least in part, by the recommendations posted by the county executive in advance of the board discussion on Tuesday, Nov. 2. I appreciate the alignment in several priorities, but hope to see the board adopt at least $40 million allocated to investments in children, allocate funds to develop alternatives to incarceration and scale up the existing small business grant program to a minimum of $10 million.
To achieve this vision of a stronger, more equitable and better prepared Santa Clara County, we will need true partnership across our community and sustained investment in key areas. These ARPA funds are an important downpayment on our future.
Susan Ellenberg is a Santa Clara County supervisor representing District 4.