Southeast Ohio spells out critical needs for funding

Court Street in Athens, Ohio. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Southeast Ohio is a place known for being rural, independent, and unafraid to ask for what it needs. 

The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t changed that, especially with mass business closures, higher education in the area taking a big hit, and broadband issues continuing as remote learning becomes more and more important for all students.

In a letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, representatives from nonprofits, state agencies, elected officials, and school administrators all unified in the demand for funding and policy priorities. The Buckeye Hills Regional Council organized and sent the letter. 

“By acting swiftly, your investment in these priorities will help restore financial stability to Southeast Ohio while addressing intensifying issues of equity and access that have long limited our region’s ability to grow and prosper,” the letter stated.

Kelly Hatas, executive director of Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action (HAPCAP), said she recognizes the support many state agencies have given the region, but the existing issues Southeast Ohio had before the pandemic were only exacerbated by the job losses and closures, which is why she signed the letter on behalf of HAPCAP.

“For some who had been working to escape poverty, that light at the end of the tunnel now might seem out of reach,” Hatas told the Ohio Capital Journal. “Jobs, especially living-wage jobs, are more scarce, and the $600 weekly unemployment benefit that has served as a lifeline for so many families is set to expire on July 31st.”

A COVID-19 response fund promoted by the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio has already helped 112 non-profits and 45 food banks, showing the way in which communities in the area come together when they need to, but philanthropic capital is a continuing need for the region, according to Cara Dingus Brook, president and CEO of the foundation.

The need for charitable help and state investment goes beyond the pandemic, Dingus Brook said, but getting to the heart of the problems in Appalachia involves more than just reactive charity.

“It’s just mostly the symptoms of underinvestment, poverty, maybe underrepresentation,” Dingus Brook said. “The people here are very capable, we just haven’t had the same capacity or the same institutional support.”

As part of an emphasis on avoiding further poverty issues within the region, the letter pushes for a one-year, emergency expansion of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and it’s state program, Ohio Works First.

The statewide Children’s Defense Fund released a report about children and families in the Appalachian region, and found that COVID-19 is a contributor to existing disparities in health care, housing, nutrition, child welfare and education.

Of the counties with the highest poverty rates in the state, 11 are in the Appalachian region, and 23.3% of children who live in that area live in poverty, according to the fund’s study, funded by Muskingum University and Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.

“Of the health care challenges in Appalachia, access to basic health care is a recurring theme,” according to the study’s key findings.

Hatas said HAPCAP is particularly interested in seeing state and federal support for water shutoff prevention in Southeast Ohio. 

“Even with all of the other unknowns that this pandemic has presented, we know unequivocally that handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent COVID-19 transmission,” Hatas said.

The establishment of a “Southeast Ohio Healthcare Council” was a large part of the priorities laid out in the council letter. The Ohio Controlling Board authorized $100 million in federal CARES Act funds for education, but agencies in the area say more must be done.

The health care council would be a point of contact for state and federal policy makers, create a regional contact tracing and testing program, and bring together a base of operations for local epidemiologists, among other things.