Brandon Dew and Jean Hill: How should the Utah Legislature spend billions in ARP funds? Listen to Utahns.

We have a historic opportunity to write a new story for our state.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, bottom center, leads the Utah Legislature's special session Thursday, June 18, 2020, at the Utah state Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers have voted during a special session to ban knee-to-neck chokeholds similar to the one used in the death of George Floyd. The measure approved Thursday, June 18, 2020, stops short of criminalizing the use of all chokehold methods. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

This week, the Utah Legislature will decide how to invest the billions coming our way from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress.

The COVID pandemic has impacted all Utahns — but not equally. Frontline workers, immigrants, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, small business owners and rural Utahns have been hardest hit. Our state leaders must allocate these funds in a way that corrects the historic inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the Catholic Worker tradition, “subsidiarity” is the idea that decisions should be made by those they impact most. Accordingly, we should turn to Utahns first to determine where these investments will do the most good.

So that’s what we did. The clergy and civic leaders of United Today Stronger Tomorrow-Utah surveyed nearly 1,000 Utahns through religious communities, targeted Facebook ads and partnerships with rural, immigrant and refugee-focused organizations.

Our survey collected quantitative data from over 120 zip codes, and also left space for Utahns to share how the pandemic has impacted their lives. The results draw a clear picture of what Utahns need from these recovery funds, along with heartbreaking snapshots from those who are looking to their state government for help. Here are some topline findings, paired with representative quotes from respondents.

We found that by far the most pressing concern for Utahns is housing, with 85% calling for new affordable housing stock for those making the least in our state. One Provo resident wrote, “I’m a struggling single mother that cannot afford rent without working non-stop and completely neglecting my children. I know I’m not alone in this daily struggle.”

Mental health was a top priority at 65% among those who prioritized health care. A mother in Sandy shared, “Mental health care is really scarce and expensive. My daughter is extremely depressed and needs intensive therapy. She has to wait two months before she can be seen at a clinic, which won’t even take insurance.”

When asked what kind of direct family support would best benefit their families, Utahns identified child care subsidies (72%), especially for families of children with disabilities, followed by unrestricted emergency funds (58%). A West Jordananian reported, “I’m spending most of my salary on childcare and it’s crippling.” A restaurant worker from Davis County added, “I am almost 60 years old and raise my grandkids by myself. During the pandemic my rent went up. I cannot afford utilities either. I don’t believe in handouts. But I am stuck with nowhere to go.”

Other key findings: strong concern for low-wage essential workers and Utah-based small businesses, and a desire to prioritize infrastructure projects that will create clean air, water and energy.

We have a historic opportunity to write a new story for our state. We have the resources to create a community where all our children can get an excellent education, go to an affordable college, technical school or apprenticeship program, get a great job that allows them to support their family, keep a safe home and breathe clean air — if our legislative leaders choose it.

On Monday afternoon, the Executive Appropriation Committee met to approve the preliminary allocation of $1.6 billion in flexible funds. There are some promising steps, including a first $70 million investment in affordable housing and $100 million for mental health. But overall we know that this doesn’t yet match the scale of the problem Utahns are facing, especially those most severely impacted by the pandemic.

We can do so much more in the areas of housing, job training and support for low-wage workers and families of children with disabilities. Our UT Stronger Tomorrow Agenda outlines specific investments the legislature can adopt, rooted in the priorities of Utahns and focused on addressing the disparate impact COVID has had on our communities.

On Wednesday, our full Legislature will gather. They have a chance to enact a bold vision for an equitable Utah. They can’t go wrong if they listen to Utahns.

Jean Hill

Jean Hill is the director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Brandon Dew

Brandon Dew is the district representative of Operating Engineers Local 3.

They serve on the Organizing Committee of United Today, Strong Tomorrow-Utah. For complete results of the survey, go to UTST-Utah American Rescue Plan Survey.