Here’s the story: The State of West Virginia paid $10 million of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for a Marshall University baseball stadium, despite the cries of 29 social service organizations in West Virginia who sent a letter to Governor Justice, expressing concern that COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government’s CARES Act were not reaching those in need in the state as reported by Charleston Gazette-Mail article by Mike Tony.
Here’s the backstory: Pastor Matthew Watts is the senior pastor of Grace Bible Church and leader of The Tuesday Morning Group (TMG), a group of ministers and community leaders in Charleston. It’s a group I attend. Together, we have been pushing for significant, publicly-funded research into poverty conditions and for policymakers to use the findings to pass good policy. Pastor Watts has been involved in health equity and education reform for over 13 years.
The TMG has presented multiple solution-driven platforms to the WV Legislature, WV Governors, WV school board leadership, generations of representatives with the City of Charleston, and countless community forms, including the vision for a pilot project that would support the 22% Black population of the West Side of Charleston as a template to address poverty, substance abuse, and other social determinants of health.
“We are not creating something new, “ BVII Director Dr. Shanequa Smith said of TMG’s work, “Pastor Watts and the TMG have been writing and advocating for policies for years. We are seeking to take their hard work and help the community, at large, understand.”
In April 2020, at the pandemic’s beginning, TMG established a Justice Collaborate to support the TMG Economic Justice, Fairness, and Equity (EJFE) plan. It’s one of its many policy plans and pilot projects over the years.
This plan was submitted to the Governor’s office and legislative leadership. The EJEF Plan called for the allocation of $250 million of the remaining American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds to address disparities in African American communities in health and education, social services workforce, and economic development.
During the 2003 regular session, the WV Legislature passed legislation to establish the Select Committee on Minority Issues, and at the end of that year, the committee issued a 365-page report that addressed, among many things, health inequities.
It’s 20 years later, and neither the Governor’s office nor the WV Legislature has taken action to address any of the disparities outlined in the 2003 Select Committee Report.
The State didn’t consider it when allocating CARES funding, either.
In 2021-2022, the state’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs traveled to each of the 55 counties to discuss pandemic-related challenges, health concerns, prioritizing needs, and pooling resources. The listening sessions allowed nonprofits, local leaders, and community members to share areas of need that could potentially be addressed through federal funding allocations to the state.
Where’s the qualitative research? Has it played any part in determining how federal COVID-19 funding has been spent?
Before the public learned about the purchase of a baseball field, Governor Justice openly lamented receiving the letter from 29 WV social services organizations, encouraging him to remember marginalized populations when allocating federal COVID-19 funding.
“For crying out loud, I’m not the king,” Justice said. “There are federal guidelines that we all have to follow. Absolutely. This is nothing but politics…”
But here we are. When the spending deadline passed on September 30, 2022, $28,375,985 remained in West Virginia’s CARES Act cash balance.
West Virginia’s budget has a surplus of over $1.2 billion and another nearly $750 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds remaining.
Instead of returning this money to the federal government, the Governor’s Office transferred it into the Gifts, Grants, and Donations Fund.
The Governor’s Office claims that the funds were used to reimburse the state for previously paid COVID-related expenses and are not subject to federal guidelines.
A number of policy recommendations made by TMG fit under these federal guidelines.
Here’s the game: The Tuesday Morning Group, and people like Pastor Watts, do the work to listen to their communities, collect data, and present their case to the government entities that hold the purse strings. In response, they’re publicly decried as playing politics. Their motivations are publicly scrutinized.
Government groups like the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs go through the motions of community listening sessions but rarely make their findings public. Data aren’t shared for public consideration.
TMG has supported several bills during previous legislative sessions that my newspaper has reported on, but they failed to pass in the legislature, including a bill that would create a state-funded research program to study the root causes of poverty and a bill that would create a state-funded poverty reduction program.
And so we know, despite the mountain of cash our state might be sitting on, ideas from community advocates mean little to the State, no matter the data, the methodology, or the good the policy could do for impacted communities.
Despite surpluses in the state budget, Governor Justice plans to submit another flat budget for the fiscal year 2024.
State offices meant to represent these same communities are under no obligation to report the data they’re supposed to collect. They can go through the motions, placate us, and move on as if what they learned should not influence policy.
Do you remember reading the letter written by those 29 social service organizations? No? That’s because no media outlet published it. Building support is virtually impossible when you can’t share the message.
Google for the 2003 Select Committee on Minority Issues final report. Can you find it? How about TMG’s Economic Justice, Fairness, and Equity (EJFE) plan; do you find a single media story on it, besides in my newspaper?
In this moment, we have the opportunity and resources to change the trajectory for so many fellow West Virginians—a real hand up.
We have the plan. We don’t have the will.
Instead, as Tony’s Gazette-Mail article concludes with a quote from Pam Garrison, anti-poverty and consumer advocate, “But we get a ball field.”