U-M Poverty Solutions makes recommendations to maximize equity in Washtenaw County's ARPA spending

The University of Michigan’s (U-M) Poverty Solutions initiative has released a new policy brief providing equity-focused recommendations for Washtenaw County’s use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funding. 

The federal government enacted ARPA in 2021 as a stimulus effort to help the country recover from some of the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Washtenaw County is currently expecting to receive a total of $71 million in ARPA funding. The county has received and spent just over half of that total at $36 million so far. 

“There's really a lot of different ways this money could be spent,” says Poverty Solutions Senior Data and Evaluation Manager Amanda Nothaft, who led the analysis and authored the brief. “It's a really unique opportunity for governments to make some investments that have a long-term impact.”

Nothaft and Poverty Solutions previously worked with the county to develop the 2021 Washtenaw Opportunity Index, a data-driven tool that considers factors such as life expectancy, economic well-being, job access, education, and more to measure equity and access to opportunity across the county. 

“[Given] the amount of effort that went into the Opportunity Index, we want to make sure it's being used,” Nothaft says. “So we were watching to see what the county would do [with the ARPA funding].”

She adds that much of the new policy brief was informed by the index, as well as the county’s own equity goals. 

“The county has a mission-driven idea behind government spending in general, and that's kind of what generated the opportunity index to begin with,” Nothaft says. “This is an opportunity to act on that.”

The brief contains recommendations for future spending, as well as some analysis of the $36 million the county has already spent. Nothaft says many of the issues Washtenaw County is already tackling with the funding — including child care assistance, greater investment in the Washtenaw County Health Department, and a new mobility initiative — align with the issues outlined by the Opportunity Index. 

The report itself focuses mainly on how the county can allocate spending and future ARPA funding towards those issues in a way that will ensure the most impact for county residents in an equitable way. It cites three main recommendations: to ensure programs funded in their initial allocation are adequate to achieve program success; to be cautious in funding programs requiring a permanent funding source; and to prioritize spending on one-time investments that are likely to yield long-term impacts.

Nothaft herself remains cautiously optimistic about the already-allocated funds and the remaining $35 million. 

“It's kind of an unprecedented opportunity to act on,” she says. “How often do you get this huge, extra pot of money to make investments in these things that you believe in and that are just good for the county overall?” 

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at sabinebickfordbrown@gmail.com.
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