Three ways we can help Americans get through this crisis

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Since COVID-19 first impacted our communities, the U.S. response has lagged behind. On the public health side, after weeks of mixed messages about the gravity of the crisis, testing is still limited in cities such as mine. On the economic side, by the time Congress passed its first coronavirus package, the economy effectively had ground to a halt. A consumer-driven economy simply doesn’t function when the consumer is told to stay home. Once again, Congress is attempting to play catch up, considering legislation to respond to our ever-changing economic reality.

I know this reality firsthand as the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Two months ago, Forbes said my city would have the strongest job growth in the country this year. Today, that seems like a distant memory.

Right now, I am making the best decisions possible about public health and business closures while relying on incomplete data, news articles and reports from health care providers — with little guidance from the federal government beyond the White House daily briefings.

Fortunately, mayors know something unique about how to respond to a crisis. Each time I open my iPhone, I read about the desperation of those who want to practice social distancing but also are worried about being evicted. These messages, calls and texts are from people I know. My neighbors aren’t reaching out to me to lobby for a particular program, or to espouse a political philosophy. They have one message: help.

Driving through downtown, it is easy to see why. Restaurants and bars that were packed 10 days ago are now closed, retail is nonexistent, and furloughed workers are desperate for rental assistance. 

We must take immediate action. For public health, we rely on experts to keep our residents safe. Our economic response, however, must do more than stop the bleeding; we must heal the patient and return her to health. That’s why it is time to think about how to prepare for the recovery at the same time we mitigate the current damage. 

Given the amount of time it takes us to put the dollars to work — to get them appropriated from the federal government, into the hands of others, and then procured for specific use — this is the time to pass legislation that will put people to work this fall.

So, here are three ideas:

  • Implement a nationwide fiber plan. Chattanooga has the fastest, cheapest, most pervasive internet in the world, a municipally-owned 10-gigabit network that goes to every home and every business in a 600-square-mile area. It has been powering our economy for a decade. Like its forerunners, the public utility grid and the interstate highway system, universal broadband is essential for economic development and quality of life, and that has never been more apparent. Let’s make ultra-high-speed broadband a reality for every American.
  • Build research hubs in mid-sized cities. Over the past 20 years, superstar cities have seen much of the benefit of our economic growth. In their recent book, “Jump-Starting America,” Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson trace the disinvestment in science and argue that the spillover effects of new hubs would spur entrepreneurship. As someone who has seen flashes of what these dollars can do — Chattanooga has benefited from $110 million in “smart city” grants — it is time to supercharge our nation’s work in energy, health and technology. By investing in research hubs across our country, we can solve our nation’s most urgent problems while catalyzing economic growth.
  • Upskill America for middle-class jobs. In every economic downtown, Americans return to universities, community colleges and trade schools to enter new industries. This downturn will be no different. In Chattanooga, we have set aside dollars for a tech training fund, but we need a critical mass of people to make the programs sustainable. Most cities have hard-working, talented people who are still barely paying their bills. We can help them move into growing, critical industries with good wages and open positions.

Congress should be applauded for taking meaningful steps to stimulate the economy and help workers who are feeling the worst shocks in the economy. In the midst of a crisis, we are rightly focused on immediate needs. Americans are sick, and we need to treat them. The current stoppage is about to stretch our safety net to its limit, so we must take action to prevent as many as possible from falling through.

At the same time, though, we need to be thinking about how we finally become proactive, rather than reactive. Here, Congress has a chance to enact legislation that will employ Americans this fall, address long-term needs, and eventually build our middle class. The sooner we get to work the better.

Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @AndyBerke.

Tags Broadband access Chattanooga coronavirus economy COVID-19 R&D tech jobs Tennessee

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