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Point of View: Don’t let COVID relief packages be a bridge to nowhere

Chris Bernard
Chris Bernard

In March, our elected leaders in Congress developed a broad-based COVID-19 relief package designed to build a bridge over the canyon-sized gaps in resources in a number of areas. Nonprofits stepped up to support the structure.

Unfortunately, the endpoint of that bridge was built believing the pandemic would end in a matter of months, leaving our communities racing along a bridge that ended in dead air.

According to Census data, in the past week, 335,000 Oklahomans did not have enough food to put on the table. Oklahomans are struggling to make ends meet, 60% saying they have had some trouble meeting regular expenses.

People are falling through the gaps and many more see the warning signs at the end of the bridge with no way to stop before hurtling over the edge.

Finally, a new relief package has arrived. This package reflects the urgency of our need, but it does not necessarily reflect the complexity or the duration. Extending the bridge a little further isn’t enough. The country needs a complete construction plan showing safe passage to the other side.

Take any section of this bridge away and it places immense pressure on another section. Small businesses without forgivable loans must lay off employees, who then need unemployment benefits. Unemployed Oklahomans who lose unemployment benefits then rely on nutrition support. It is all interconnected.

Though important food security programs like SNAP have been reinforced, there is more work needed to make it to the other side of this pandemic. Congress will need to provide additional or longer-lasting relief in the areas of unemployment, rent and mortgage relief, nutrition, loans for small businesses, and funds for Oklahoma’s largest employers, state and local governments.

In every one of these areas, the need is higher than any time in the recent past. That means more people than ever on a weak and incomplete bridge. Imagine what the condition of the bridge will be when sections disappear in a few months.

This crisis is complex, any relief package that doesn’t address the multiple and long-lasting supports needed for individuals, businesses, and state, local, and tribal governments is simply inadequate. Without completing the bridge, local and tribal governments will lack the funds to respond to the local problems caused by COVID-19. Without completing the bridge, nonprofits will never be able to meet the need of those who fall through the gaps. Without safe passage, Oklahomans and Oklahoma businesses will suffer.

We must thank our leaders for the much-needed relief, and also urge them to focus on additional relief in the coming months. Otherwise this package will be another bridge to nowhere.

Bernard is executive director of Hunger Free Oklahoma.