The Importance of ARPA Equity


The United States Conference of Mayors and the Kresge Foundation recently published The American Rescue Plan Act: Promoting Equity through ARPA Implementation, a comprehensive report that evaluates how different American cities utilized their ARPA funding to further equity goals. The report specifically focused on how cities:

  • Identified underserved areas and systemic inequities, then leveraged federal aid to address these imbalances.
  • Included both non-profits and the private sector as stakeholders in the deployment of federal funds.
  • Incorporated a wider set of public finance, community investment, and social investment strategies with ARPA funding to sustain continuous equity work.

The report reviews 20 different cities, highlighting the equity programs, short- and long-term impacts, external resources and stakeholders, and lessons learned from each. The report also outlines several national principles to guide local ARPA strategies based on the city case studies. This summary shares examples from the Conference of Mayors and Kresge report while also showcasing how other cities have done this work recently, both before and since the influx of federal funding. These examples demonstrate the viability of these principles and supplement the exemplars highlighted in the Promoting Equity through ARPA Implementation report.

Summary of Common Principles Found across Cities

1. A clear definition of equity, which is operationalized as both an outcome and a process, is a vital component of an ARPA strategy that seeks to address historic and systemic inequities for underserved populations.

As more and more cities elevate their equity work, create equity offices, and hire chief equity officers, local leaders are developing a common definition of equity for their cities. The report details how cities like Boston are using their ARPA funding to provide services and resources to those historically excluded populations, while in Chicago local leaders are co-creating solutions with those most impacted by the problems they are seeking to solve. Chicago has been a leader in this work for some time, as shown in this interview with Candace Moore, the city’s chief equity officer. In her interview with Data-Smart, Moore explained that she thinks “equity work is innovation work,” since it requires “rethinking how systems and processes work, and we want to rethink that in alignment with community experiences and perspectives.”

Likewise, the city of Long Beach, California has not only adopted a guiding definition of equity but is threading it through all their civic work. As the city dispenses recovery funds it is not only thinking about equity in who it goes to, but how. The city has renovated its procurement system to ensure that funding gets to community members through a transparent bidding process and diverse contractors.  

2. Using a data-driven strategy to identify the underserved or historically marginalized populations, that can help to evaluate the benefits and burdens of ARPA funding allocations, is crucial for cities that seek to advance equity.

The report highlights work in Fort Worth, where city leaders are utilizing geo-spatial solutions to map funding allocation against racially marginalized community groups in a visual layer. There are many examples of how cities have used geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping to understand inequities and show how disinvestment has damaged specific communities, including Oakland, California’s work on paving and Birmingham, Alabama’s work on blighted properties.

The COVID-19 pandemic also changed how cities understood demographics, inequities, and the benefits of data-driven decision making. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, city leaders already considered racism a public health crisis, so when the pandemic started they were able to quickly prioritize residents that had been underserved or harmed by the health care system to direct testing and vaccines.   

3. Meaningful community engagement that brings underrepresented residents to the table and creates channels for the priorities they express to shape ARPA decision making, is critical to an inclusive equitable recovery strategy.

The report outlines the development of a budget simulation tool being used in Greensboro, North Carolina. The tool allows residents to directly provide input on equity concerns and projects of interest and show how they believe the city should prioritize where ARPA funds are used. In the city of Detroit, local leaders held dozens of community meetings to discuss what funding the city had and ask how residents wanted to spend it, with a particular focus on communities that have traditionally been underrepresented. All of the projects are being tracked in an open and transparent ARPA spending dashboard that allows residents to monitor progress.   

4. Utilizing partnerships with nonprofits that serve communities most impacted by the pandemic, particularly communities of color, is important to address systemic inequities holistically.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, leaders are expanding funding opportunities for nonprofit and grassroots organizations to build capacity with ARPA dollars, and in Fort Worth, Texas local officials are engaging small nonprofits in focus groups to provide input on their areas of experience and recommendations.

A pre-ARPA model of utilizing partnerships to address systemic inequities is the BenePhilly program, which connects folks with benefits they’re eligible for in an easy and seamless way. One of the finalists for the 2021 Innovations in American Government Awards, BenePhilly partners with community-based organizations (CBOs) and local nonprofits to reach out to, check their eligibility, and assist with applications for more than 15 benefits. As cities look to strengthen relationships with communities and CBOs this program is an excellent model for bringing all stakeholders to the table and directly assisting vulnerable residents.  

5. Integrating additional funding sources, alongside ARPA investments, is critical to ensure that transformative projects seeded with ARPA funds to enhance equity are sustained. This includes other intergovernmental funds, as well as philanthropic, social, and community investments.

The sustainability of equity work is an important consideration right now, as city investments must provide both immediate and long-term improvements. Data-Smart has highlighted several examples of local and state governments blending and integrating philanthropic and community funding to the sustained benefit of residents.

The Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative is a collection of national, multi-racial organizations dedicated to combatting disenfranchisement and improving representation for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The Collaborative, which includes groups like the NAACP, UnidosUS, and the National Congress of American Indians, furthers equity work by connecting philanthropic funding with on-the-ground organizations that are working to ensure accurate voting and census representation among racial minorities.

Another example of integrating funding is The Ray, a nonprofit building the “highway of the future” with state and local departments of transportation. Using a testbed for innovation in Georgia, The Ray is utilizing new technology to create safer and more sustainable roads, including rubberized asphalt using old tires and planning for solar electric vehicle charging. By combining funding from state and local governments, federal funding (including ARPA) and philanthropic and nonprofit partners The Ray is building sustainable roads in a fiscally sustainable way.

6. Addressing equity challenges with ARPA funds requires collaborative action with a cross-jurisdictional lens, particularly to address systemic inequities that require regional solutions at scale.

Many systemic issues were worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, including learning loss. The report showcases how city leaders in Canton, Ohio are working with community partners across local school districts to fund new summer programs that aim to address this deepened learning loss among youth.

Systemic inequities are typically across jurisdictions, requiring collaboration to effectively address. This Data-Smart article explains how issues like air pollution and sustainable infrastructure must be looked at through a regional lens, and this article outlines how combatting climate change for vulnerable populations must be done regionally.

7. Cities that used ARPA funds for revenue replacement to enhance fiscal health can also take steps to strengthen the city’s ability to make future sustained investments in core programs and services that are integral to advancing equity.

In San Diego, the majority of ARPA SLFRF funds are being used for revenue replacement; according to the Promoting Equity report, this allows the city to maintain civic employment and keep services at existing levels. In Baton Rouge, local leaders are incorporating ARPA funding to help sustain their Stormwater Master Plan work, which will mitigate extreme flooding disasters.

There are also other examples of using federal funding to support and maintain core services from previous recovery and reinvestment funding. In this article Professor Steve Goldsmith, director of Data-Smart, outlines how cities can invest funds in programs like broadband access, infrastructure equipment, and other fundamentals to advance equity both now and in the future.  

The above is a review of the report findings with additional examples shared from Data-Smart City Solutions. Please view the full Promoting Equity through ARPA report from the United States Conference of Mayors and the Kresge Foundation for more detailed examples from the 20 different cities studies.

About the Author

Kamya Jagadish

Kamya Jagadish is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions while she pursues a Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration at Harvard. Before coming to graduate school, she worked as a data scientist and product manager in the tech sector and as an innovation specialist within the US Department of Transportation. At school she is focused on determining pathways to leverage private capital and partnerships for the public sector.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.