Unprecedented Federal Aid to Local Governments Offers Opportunity to Target Investment Where Communities Need It Most

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a new need for data transparency when it came to public health measures and mitigating the spread of the virus. We literally live or die by the map, closely monitoring the rise and fall in new coronavirus cases and fighting to put policies in place that keep our communities safe. 

Now, with the more than $350 billion in federal aid and grant funding available to local governments through the American Rescue Plan Act, cities like ours are turning to the map again. But it’s not enough for Congress to simply allocate the funds. 

Cities have to develop the tools they need to access them through a web of federal bureaucracies. Applying the lessons learned over the past year, cities like ours can now identify and measure the most intractable issues facing our communities and then use that data to inform which competitive federal aid programs we pursue. 

That’s why Indianola and Sidon, along with 30 other cities, towns and villages in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, are partnering with the National League of Cities  in an unprecedented effort to use quantifiable data to assess issues our communities face and help us bid for ARPA grant funding to address those challenges. Using the Social Progress Index framework, we are measuring the most urgent needs of our hometowns down to the granular, census-tract level on issues including hunger, homelessness, unemployment and more. The massive data-collection effort currently being piloted goes well beyond the public health metrics we became accustomed to seeing throughout the pandemic. 

The tool that NLC is deploying helps assess the most urgent needs of the community, measuring more than 40 different indicators, from supermarket access and housing costs to average broadband speeds and unemployment benefits administered. Using that detailed needs assessment, cities are provided with resources and support to help them apply for competitive ARPA grant funding to address those needs. Once the grant funds are awarded, NLC’s program helps design the programming and build the data collection to help measure the on-the-ground impact of the grant funding, demonstrating the tangible results of federal aid. 

This data-driven approach to spending and measurement could fully transform federal spending in the future, if scaled to a national level. The data being collected will help better inform budget writers and federal agency staff about the types of targeted aid that can be directed to cities with deep needs and produce the greatest impact on improving quality of life in America’s cities, identifying the programs and practices that have the most transformational impacts on communities. 

For example, our small hometowns in Mississippi were able to identify specific populations in our communities that lack educational resources for young people and access to broadband, respectively. Using the resources made available to us through NLC, we’ve been able to set new goals for investing in early childhood and infrastructure for our targeted groups, and secure funding to stand up a brand-new afterschool program to help move our youth forward, as well as our entire community.  

By working closely with our local grant navigators, who have extensive experience in municipal government administration, we were able to accomplish what would normally take several years in just a few meetings. The program helped us directly target the areas of our community that needed help, and start applying to federal grants under ARPA that are available to help us achieve our goals and improve the lives of our residents. 

Not only are the pilot programs transformational for local governments, but they are also valuable for federal policymakers seeking to improve efficiencies, enhance transparency and demonstrate accountability in how taxpayer dollars are being distributed and spent. Once data is available at the national level, future federal relief packages can be more carefully tailored to make sure funding is prioritized for the types of investment that yield the greatest return for American communities working to improve their overall quality of life. 

However, these increased efficiencies aren’t possible without a significant investment in funding for the staff and resources required to scale the program nationally. With federal support, this program has the opportunity to deliver critical insights at the local, state and national levels, so that policymakers in Washington can have a clear view of the most effective uses of federal funds. 

Our residents deserve to know exactly how the aid distributed to their local governments is being used to improve quality of life in our communities as we continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are going to make our hometowns more resilient to public health, economic and environmental crises, we must ensure that each dollar is being used to maximize the impact of federal aid. 


Steve Rosenthal is the mayor of Indianola, Miss., and Johnnie Mae Neal is the mayor of Sidon, Miss. 

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