Last night, President Biden offered a vision of government as an instrument for progress not heard from a president since Lyndon Johnson. Congress should put that vision into legislation this summer, but success will also depend on countless smaller decisions made across the country.
A key test comes from more than $450 billion earmarked for states and local governments to spend quickly as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted last month. This money may be used to fill budget holes. But state revenues have risen sharply with economic recovery, in some cases exceeding pre-pandemic levels, and some states have a surplus even before a federal dime arrives. Cities and councils (and tribes) face more shortfalls, but they will also have opportunities to invest.
President Biden’s rescue plan czar, Gene Sperling, is a superb operator, but he cannot direct these dollars. They actually have fewer strings attached than the smaller, parallel funds in the 2009 bill which we helped administer under the Obama administration. The main work will fall to governors and state legislators, mayors and city councils, county executives and commissioners, school superintendents and boards.
Even passionate and seasoned officials and their staffs have had little time to consider anything beyond the immediate crisis. While they fend off padded proposals from vendors, the normal political process churns toward what policy wonks call the “peanut butter spread” problem — in other words, giving everyone something, yet falling short of lasting change.
There are ways to avoid that. Based on decades of experience with every level of government, we would organize efforts around five principles. First, target a few big goals, to narrow and galvanize efforts. Second, fund initiatives with strong evidence of large long-term returns. Third, use these one-time funds in ways that are themselves one-time, or have a path to sustainability. Fourth, address racial and economic inequity, delivering for those left furthest behind. Finally, measure success.
Putting these principles into action, we’d focus on serving the children who have suffered most from the pandemic. School closures, parents’ job losses and social isolation have set back children in ways we are only starting to understand. Here’s just one stunning example: The share of Virginia’s early elementary students at high-risk for reading failure increased by more than 50 percent this fall, with the biggest increase seen among children who are Black, Latino, or poor. Children’s mental health visits to emergency rooms also grew by at least a quarter, as did family food insecurity. Most frightening: More time at home, and in the home, has given millions of children greater exposure to lead, which can have adverse effects on brain development and behavior.
Rescue Plan dollars can meet all these challenges. Start with lead: As part of his infrastructure plan, Mr. Biden has committed to eliminating all lead service pipes. But there’s no reason to wait for that bill to pass, and we can’t focus on pipes alone. In addition to some nine million U.S. homes with lead service lines, 24 million homes (built before 1978), including four million with young children, have lead-based paint hazards. Lead exposure in children — from inhaling the dust or eating the paint — may lead to reductions in educational outcomes and potentially criminal behavior. This is a perfect use of Rescue Plan dollars: one-time, proven impact and huge results for those at greatest risk.
With the widespread distribution of vaccines making close contact safer, now is also the time to ramp up voluntary home visiting programs for families suffering from social isolation. Some programs engage nurses to work with new parents on health and nutrition; others send social workers to help families in crisis to avoid foster placements. Both types get results. Pre-kindergarten education and skilled tutoring, when offered regularly, are proven to reduce learning gaps, too. These efforts cannot — and will not — end with the Covid-19 crisis, but they can carry forward if Congress embraces the president’s proposals around early childhood intervention.
To knit together supports, governments can follow North Carolina’s lead. The state has been a model in creating an online platform that enables health, education and social service providers to securely communicate, make referrals, and share information. We know these connections are crucial so families get the help they need when they need it. The platform also generates data essential to determining the results investments are getting.
To be sure, not all spending on children deserves support with these dollars. Services like home visits should be targeted at those most in need. Sweeping initiatives that spend big on people and continue indefinitely — like reducing class sizes and raising salaries — are best funded with permanent funding. And since there is a premium on speed — this money has an expiration date — this isn’t the place for complex, untested new initiatives.
Now is a moment for a sweeping strategy, not just a shopping list. With wise investments in the next generation, we can prove the value of smart government for generations to come.