$25 Million for Economic Relief; $32 Million for Digital Divide
HARRIS COUNTY – With the COVID-19 Pandemic continuing to affect the nation’s health and economy, and Congress unable to come to an agreement on additional economic aid, Harris County Commissioner’s Court took action at last Tuesday’s meeting to help residents of the County who are facing hardships. Two bills were passed, one for $25 million of Economic Relief, and the other for $32 million to provide digital access to families without electronic means.
The details of the bills are as follows:
Harris County Provides Much-Needed Direct Relief for Residents Still Struggling from Economic Fallout of COVID-19 Pandemic
Commissioners Court Approves $25M for New Round of Direct Assistance Payments
Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, many families have been struggling to afford basic needs. Because families have different needs – from childcare to medical bills to housing – direct financial assistance is the best way to provide relief for working families in Harris County.
At Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Commissioners voted to approve an additional $25 million for an Emergency Direct Assistance Program, which would build on the $30 million Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund from earlier this year.
“Our community is hurting. Families are hurting. We need to be responsive to them, and help them out during these difficult times,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “We have the means and the responsibility to step in and relieve those who are struggling. We know that the Relief Fund was effective in helping some of our vulnerable residents, but more residents are in need of relief. We will pull through this crisis by pulling together and protecting our most vulnerable.”
The latest data demonstrates that additional relief is needed in Harris County and that direct assistance is an effective tool to provide that relief. Since March 7, 2020, Harris County residents have filed at least 504,407 initial unemployment claims with the Texas Workforce Commission. Low-income households of color are struggling the most, with almost half of Black and Latinx households reporting they could not pay April bills in full. Direct assistance to low-income families can help reduce poverty rates, inject money into the local economy and, most importantly, help families afford their basic needs. Economists who studied how low-income households used federal payments from the CARES Act found that the money was primary used on things like food, supplies and rent.
“Many times our clients have needs that go unmet. With the Harris County COVID Relief Fund, Wesley has been able to serve over 500 families with those types of needs,” said Erica Luna, Community Services Manager at Wesley Community Center, who testified at Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “We heard time and again of families that were going to use the assistance to catch up on mortgage payments that would keep them out of foreclosure. Another reoccurring need we kept hearing was car notes.” Erica cited a mother of two who used the assistance to get her car back, which had been repossessed and she needed it to get to and from work at a local restaurant.
Of the over 500,000 families that applied for the Relief Fund in June, 20,000 households and almost 40,000 individuals received assistance. This new round of $25 million in direct assistance will help reach an estimated 20,000 households, but is not enough to bring relief to all families in need. Commissioner Ellis will continue to advocate for using existing resources to help working families, and will continue to encourage the federal government to provide additional support for people to weather this public health and economic crisis in the upcoming stimulus package.
$32M in Funding to Ensure Digital Access to Low-Income Harris County Students The Digital Access Program will Provide Devices and WiFi Hot Spots to Students
All children deserve to have access to high-quality education. However, as public health experts have recommended that we delay in-person instruction and our schools move classes online, some children have been left without the tools to continue their education. Low-income families often cannot afford high-speed internet access and devices that their children need to complete their online coursework, leaving thousands of students without a way to begin school during the pandemic.
A recent study by the nonprofit group, Common Sense, found that one in four Texas students do not have devices at home for distance learning, and one in three lack adequate access to the internet. Of those without adequate connectivity, two thirds are Black, Latinx or Native American.
“Educational outcomes were already highly unequal before COVID-19,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis, “As instruction moves online, we need to make sure that no child is left behind in their education, particularly those in low-income and communities of color, who do not have high-speed internet and devices at home. I am proud to support County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s initiative, because it will ensure that all Harris County children have access to the necessary tools to safely continue their education.”
The Digital Access Program will use $32 million in CARES Act funding from Harris County to provide 82,000 WiFi hotspots and 211,000 devices for Harris County children through the school districts through two separate programs. The program provides $19 million toward the “Operation Connectivity” program, done in partnership with the Texas Education Agency, to provide 211,000 devices to children in Harris County school districts. Also, $13 million will go toward “Project 10 Million,” a public-private partnership program launched by T-Mobile that will provide 39,000 hot spots for students in under-resourced communities in Harris County.
Complete details of the program and how residents can apply will be communicated as soon as they are available.