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The case for focusing St. Louis County's federal money on the most vulnerable

Republicans argued the County Council should get more oversight authority of millions in federal aid, but they're not the only ones watching where the money goes

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis County Council voted on Tuesday to give County Executive Sam Page the authority to spend more than $173 million in federal coronavirus relief money. It was a party line vote. 

Democrats said Page needs the flexibility to make quick purchases on supplies like COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment. Three Republicans who voted against the ordinance argued that there should be more oversight. But, they're not the only ones watching where this money goes.

"We should be doing this because it's the right thing to do, but it also makes good economic sense," said professor Jason Purnell with Washington University's Brown School who wasn't surprised when cases of COVID-19 started to grow and the maps of the hardest hit ZIP codes in St. Louis showed the most cases in north St. Louis city and county.

"My worry is that people will believe that this problem of the virus is only affecting those people over there and, therefore, I don't need to worry about it," said Purnell. 

For years, he has studied what decades of disinvestment has meant for about a third of the St. Louis region. Born in the wrong ZIP code? Statistics say you could expect to live about 20 years less than most. 

Now he leads St. Louis' COVID-19 Regional Response team working with governments and non-profits to help people with jobs, housing, and food in this 'COVID economy.' 

For St. Louis County's federal aid, Purnell said the top priority should be those often thought of last.

"We have to focus all of our resources and all of our attention and all of our energy on making sure that the most vulnerable have their needs met," said Purnell.

"The people who are putting themselves at risk are disproportionately people of color who are serving in roles that support the rest of this community," Purnell said. "They don't have the luxury of staying at home and ordering from Instacart."

"So we owe them something and we owe those communities something," said Purnell.

Purnell said his priorities also include our older neighbors, people with disabilities, people with no place to live because the way this virus can spread biologically and economically we all share the consequences of each other's health.

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