Americans are facing an invisible enemy and one of our greatest challenges ever as a nation.
To date, Congress has passed, and the president has signed into law, four legislative packages to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, many of these new programs and provisions to assist families, businesses, local governments, and health systems have not provided the same positive impact on rural Arizona as they have on other parts of our country.
This crisis has shone a brighter light on America’s urban-rural divide. Students are dealing with the difficulties of online school without the high-speed broadband they need to succeed. Long neglected public health infrastructure is starting to crumble as funding dries up, and treasured mom-and-pop businesses across our communities are unable to secure the federal loans and grants they were promised.
Should drastic changes not occur in the next COVID-19 package, Congress will once again leave rural America behind. As Congress crafts future COVID-19 response packages, we must focus on five core issues.
1. Prioritize patients, health care workers, first responders, and hospitals who are on the front lines of this public health emergency.
We must ensure that rural hospitals, health clinics, and community health centers are receiving the funding, PPE, and testing kits they need. These smaller clinics are the primary health care stop for hundreds of thousands of Arizonans a year, especially in underserved, rural areas.
2. Assist small businesses by keeping the promises we’ve made and ensuring infrastructure to maintain these new programs is in place.
Within the new $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), I fought for $60 billion for smaller financial institutions and community banks. However, owners of smaller, less-resourced businesses are still struggling to access the loans they were promised. We must address the confusion among rural small business owners and work to ensure PPP functions as intended.
3. Increase funding for state, local, and tribal governments to ensure that these bodies that provide important services for so many are not left behind.
We must fix a flawed funding formula that advantages urban areas—only two of Arizona’s 15 counties received direct federal assistance under the CARES Act. Rural communities are on the front lines of this pandemic and are seeing their sales tax revenues decline; we must ensure these communities receive cost recovery for COVID-19-related expenses.
4. Expand access to quality, high-speed broadband to make sure we can all stay connected to school, work, and telehealth.
Currently, over 20 million Americans lack access to quality internet at home, including as many as 12 million children. An astounding 36% of tribal households lack access to any wired broadband. We must invest in new programs and fully appropriate funds for our bipartisan broadband bills that have already been signed into law.
5. Address the urgent needs of tribal communities that have been hit hardest.
The Navajo Nation is currently experiencing one of the worst outbreaks per capita in our country and is still waiting to receive their share of CARES Act funding, allocated over a month ago. The federal government has a trust responsibility to federally recognized tribal nations in the United States; I will continue to hold the federal agencies responsible for funding delay accountable to Indian Country.
For too long, rural America has been left behind. I see the discrepancies in communities throughout Arizona’s First District and hear it from our local leaders, health care providers, and small business owners. We must move forward in a bipartisan way to ensure that rural America is not left behind as we address this pandemic.
As we all do our part and adjust many aspects of our daily lives to help slow the spread of this virus, I am laser-focused on hearing from Arizonans about their individual struggles and working to secure funding and resources that work for them, not just for Washington.
I know we are living in uncertain times, and each day presents new challenges, but together, as Americans, we will get through this.
Tom O'Halleran is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. A Democrat, he lives in the Village of Oak Creek.