With the American Rescue Plan funds, our county, our state, and our city have a huge opportunity to address immediate and long-standing inequities. We can invest in a future that lifts up communities that have faced historic disinvestment and have been most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. We can create a future in which all working people flourish for the first time in more than four decades.
Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh will collectively receive more than $700 million. The City of Pittsburgh will receive around $355 million—nearly 60% of the city’s yearly operating budget. Even spent over four fiscal years, this funding gives us the opportunity to invest in affordable housing, robust workforce programs, and other investments that address the needs of our communities. This funding gives us the ability to change the future of our city for the better.
The Pittsburgh Recovery Task Force legislation introduced by council members Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle rightly proposes to steward an “equity first spending plan.” We are not clear, however, how the task force will ensure representation and input from the community. Allegheny County, for its part, has yet to publicly discuss its decision-making process for the use of ARP funds. To rebuild our city and county in just and equitable ways, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County must immediately engage in community-driven and transparent processes for deciding how the American Rescue Plan funds are spent.
The city and county budgets reflect our morals and values. They should place the highest priority on the most vulnerable and on what benefits us all—the public good. Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and recession have hit Black, indigenous, other people of color, and lower–income residents hard. Many of these residents work in industries shut down by the pandemic (e.g., hospitality, the food industry) and thus face high rates of joblessness. Many others of these residents are essential workers, on the front lines in health care or supermarkets in our city, risking infection and death for low wages because the rest of us depend on them. This joblessness and health risk have been layered on top of existing racial and economic inequity, including an affordable housing shortage and the overreliance on police to address public safety. For us to build a city and county where everyone can thrive, we must ensure that we all have a voice in how this money can be used to combat our most pressing concerns.
With the $355 million, the City of Pittsburgh has a fundamental choice. The status quo path would use these resources simply to make the next four budgets easier—to “build back the same.” This would leave in place the savage race and class inequities that preceded and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The alternative path would seize this once-in-a-century moment and these federal resources to address our structural inequities—and then use the next three years and budgets to enact policies, including fair taxation and reductions in spending on traditional policing, that would sustain a more inclusive and just Pittsburgh for generations. If we take the second, “build back better” path, we can be the first major city in the nation with affordable housing for all; we can be a city with a robust middle class again and living-wages for people of every race, ethnicity, and identity; we can be a city with appropriate services for people dealing with mental health, addiction, homelessness, and other social challenges, rather than an overreliance on policing. With the American Rescue Plan, the City of Pittsburgh can establish investment priorities that give people of color, poor, and working-class people what they need to thrive.
Budget transparency is necessary for accountability to ensure our city makes the right choice in its basic approach to the use of ARP money. Nobody knows better what our communities most need than those communities that are most impacted by existing inequities and the current crisis. To build back better we must create robust processes for community engagement. Imagine what the City of Pittsburgh could be if we all had the opportunity to contribute to our collective future.
We call on the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to immediately engage in a community-driven, transparent process for deciding how to spend these critical American Rescue Plan funds. It is time to put our money where our values are.