As of Wednesday evening, 403 Hidalgo County residents were confirmed to have COVID-19, with many more projected.

Over 7,758 Hidalgo County workers filed unemployment claims during the week ending on March 28 and over 7,770 claims were filed during the week ending April 4. In one day, hundreds of families called the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency for housing assistance. 

With the growing need and demand for food, the Texas Army National Guard has stepped in to help alleviate some of the pressure faced by the Food Bank in Pharr. The distribution count on Tuesday, April 22, was about 2,005 individuals served, and 28,398 pounds of food distributed.

Goldman Sachs revised its forecast because it thinks the U.S. labor market collapse will be even worse than anticipated. It now sees the unemployment rate rising to 15 percent by the middle of the year. Some are predicting that unemployment rates will likely reach numbers similar to the Great Depression. If these projections are even close to correct, many more Hidalgo County residents will be waiting in line at the food bank, calling the county and cities for housing assistance and health care. 

Hidalgo County and our cities have responded well. We commend Judge Richard Cortez, county commissioners, and mayors throughout the county for their strong leadership in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is so much more that can and should be done. Hidalgo County has recently received $151 million from the CARES Act to be used for Covid-19 related expenses including “second-ordered effects of the emergency, such as by providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to the COVID-19-related business closures”. Valley interfaith puts forth a three-step approach to help families during these difficult times.

First, Valley Interfaith is urging our county and city officials to implement a much-needed Renters Assistance Program. Valley Interfaith is proposing that a $25 million Renters Assistance Fund be set aside from the CARES Act money for families who have been affected by this pandemic. We believe a Renters Assistance Program falls within the parameters of the use of  Cares Act funds. This amount would help families who have lost their jobs and are unemployed for the next three months while our businesses re-open and people can get back to work. 

In just over a two-week period, over 15,000 Hidalgo County residents applied for unemployment insurance. Thousands of other taxpaying residents from Hidalgo County are ineligible for unemployment insurance or any other CARES Act benefit. Valley Interfaith proposal will help families pay for rent during these difficult times. Valley Interfaith leaders are hearing a common theme, “I could pay May’s rent, but I won’t have the money to put food on the table for my children.” 

Second, Valley Interfaith passed the Indigent Health Care program several years ago, creating a mechanism to pay for health care for the uninsured. Its intention was to apply eight percent of the County Tax levy, $15.3 million, for indigent health care. Currently, Hidalgo County covers residents at or below 30 percent of the federal poverty level. Hidalgo County’s current investment is approximately $6.1 million. Valley Interfaith is proposing an increase in funding to the Indigent Health Care Program by $10 million and raising indigent healthcare to 100 percent of federal poverty line. The result would provide much needed help to families seeking primary health care and those who have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Third, we must invest in all our county’s residents, not just the wealthy few. Many of our residents will become permanently unemployed, due to businesses closing. Valley interfaith proposes that displaced employees be given an opportunity to learn a new skill, thus money should be invested in the people through educational opportunities. We can invest in these workers by expanding programs like Project VIDA, which has a 20-year track record of moving people out of poverty into high-skill, high-wage jobs. Creating opportunities today through thoughtful, well-funded education and training programs will ensure that all residents of Hidalgo County can secure a better future for themselves and their families. The future depends on an educated and skilled workforce. 

The CARES Act is sending millions of dollars to address the Covid-19 pandemic. These public dollars and the priorities of these funds should be decided in a public manner and not in sessions closed to public input. The plans that Judge Cortez and the County Commissioners deliberate must be transparent and open to the public. Priorities should not be set behind closed doors, or in this case, closed video conferences. Hidalgo County leaders now is the time to work together and address the needs of our community.  “Invest In Families”.

“Let our light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.”

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was jointly penned by Valley Interfaith leaders Moses Robledo, Joe Hinojosa, Estela Sosa Garza and Eddie Anaya.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Valley Interfaith members and supporters at a rally in Hidalgo County in the 1980s.