The CARES Act is not Cutting It: Eastern Kentuckians Need More Federal Aid

By Larah Helayne and Ricki Draper.                                                           

First published in the Mountain Citizen, Martin County June 10, 2020

This is just one of over one hundred stories that have been shared by East Kentuckians requesting direct financial relief due to loss of income in the face of the COVID-19 Crisis. This financial relief didn’t come from provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal legislation passed in March to support families in economic crises. It came from the East Kentucky (EKY) Mutual Aid Network. Long before the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, many families in Eastern Kentucky have worked hard to make ends meet each month. The CARES Act didn’t provide enough support for many families in Eastern Kentucky, and that’s why we, organizers from the EKY Mutual Aid network, are calling on our representatives to do more for our communities and families by providing emergency relief funding to meet every Kentuckian’s basic needs.

EKY Mutual Aid is a new network, formed and led entirely by volunteers, that has emerged in response to the overwhelming need of East Kentuckians, made only more intense by the gravity of this current epidemic. COVID-19 has forced us all to recognize our own vulnerability and need for community support. Therefore, we adopted a mutual aid model that involves a reciprocal exchange of resources with the premise that the unjust distribution of resources in our society is a political issue. EKY Mutual Aid operates under the belief that when communities come together to support each other, every member of the community is stronger – each person has something to offer as well as something they need. The success of EKY Mutual Aid is completely due to an outpouring of communal support. Thus far, 139 individuals have donated over $11,000 to the group’s GoFundMe, which has allowed over 50 families to receive relief. Hundreds of people have shared the fundraiser on social media, and it has been amplified by other mutual aid groups, and various non-profits throughout the Appalachian region. Beyond providing financial relief, EKY Mutual Aid has started a Facebook group with over 600 members, where people can seek and share resources, such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gardening supplies. Twice a week, the group hosts virtual meetings to discuss fundraiser progress, possible expansions in the type of aid provided, and to highlight the work of other mutual aid organizations. The group is made up of students, parents, non-profit employees, musicians, artists, gig-workers, and community members from Letcher, Pike, Montgomery, Floyd, Knott, Martin, and Elliott counties, all with a common goal: empower our communities to come together and help one another in this trying time, and beyond.

Our experience with Eastern KY Mutual Aid shows the power of solidarity and relying on existing community strengths, but as the crisis continues and the financial futures of more and more individuals remain uncertain, it is hard to keep a fund like this one going. Donations to the GoFundMe are slowing as the crisis continues. The group closed the request form on May 11 to new applicants, and we are currently working hard to fulfill the existing requests on a long waiting list. The need is overwhelming, not just in eastern Kentucky, but across the country. And the fact is, the families hit hardest by this health and economic crisis are those that were already struggling to meet their basic needs.

Eastern Kentuckians are no stranger to challenges and hardship, and we have always taken care of our neighbors in times of need. But we, and families all across the country, urgently need more federal aid to survive this crisis. Federal aid distribution must also take into account populations disproportionately affected by Covid-19, especially Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. The national protests erupting across the country in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless other unarmed Black people highlight the systemic racism that permeates our society and, though no federal aid package will be able to address the systemic inequities that this pandemic and past weeks have further revealed, congress can start to address these inequities by ensuring that those that need the most support are not left out. The CARES Act, one of the federal government’s initial relief efforts, offered only a fraction of what is needed. Many individuals were left out of the package and it did nothing to help bolster our state budget. Without adequate funding for state services like healthcare and education, those left out of the initial CARES Act, like people already unemployed, caretakers of elderly relatives or children under 17, and low-income earners, will be left to struggle without even the basic services they’ve depended on from our state.

            The next package of legislation must address the failures of the previous relief act. Legislation must prioritize every family’s basic needs: safe and secure housing, access to healthy food and clean and affordable drinking water, and medical care. To meet these needs, EKY Mutual Aid and a host of other community-based organizations believe that the act must include: a flexible emergency assistance fund to be administered by states that can provide assistance to those that don’t qualify for other aid; an increase in SNAP benefits to help pay for the meals of children home from school and allow families to buy more in one trip to the grocery store; housing vouchers for rental assistance, and relief for states. State fiscal relief is critical to ensuring that our recession does not deepen into a depression. The HEROES Act, legislation that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, provides a SNAP benefits increase, support for states, and some additional rental assistance funds. It is crucial that Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, take action now to move this legislation forward in the senate. There is no time to wait.

We know how to take care of ourselves and each other, but in order to make it through this crisis, we need government officials and all those in political power to take initiative, and do what is necessary to provide East Kentuckians and all Americans with the relief and support they need. Join EKY Mutual Aid in demanding federal legislation that adequately addresses the needs of East Kentuckians, and all those who too often fall through the cracks created by an unjust system. Contact your legislators today. Send a letter to Senator McConell by following this link: https://tinyurl.com/TellSenatorMcconnellActNow. We will get through this together; and that means all of us must play our part.

“When I received the $200, it felt like the biggest burden had been lifted from my shoulders. My parents are both high risk to COVID-19, and their extra money had been going toward different cleaning products and supplies… We’re normally proud people and would never ask for help. I put all of that aside and I am so glad I did. I wish everyone knew how much this organization has helped the people who live right here in the mountains. Thank you all again for not making me feel like a charity case.” 

UPDATE: Since this article was published, EKY Mutual Aid has distributed over $15,000 to Eastern Kentuckians affected by Covid-19.