As state and local governments implemented stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus in March and April 2020, policymakers at all levels of government mounted emergency relief programs, attempting not only to mitigate the impending health and economic crisis, but also to do so equitably. In interviews with program designers across the US, we learned that emergency assistance program designers had a common understanding of equity in resource distribution but put that understanding into practice in different ways:
- Program designers employed a common and broad definition of equity—delivering assistance to those who need it most.
- Within this definition of equity, program designers adopted varying criteria for determining need.
- Across programs, program designers grappled with trade-offs when determining how to design assistance programs and distribute funds. Most often, they described having to balance competing priorities at every stage of program design: speed versus targeting in benefit distribution, targeting versus accessibility in the application process, and local need versus federal funding constraints in program financing.
By elevating trade-offs and exploring how one set of local program leaders responded to competing priorities in their own communities, we hope to surface lessons that can inform both future rounds of federal relief policy and future iterations of local emergency assistance programs for policymakers across all levels of government. We conclude by offering recommendations for federal policymakers drawn from the insights our six interviewees shared on the supports they need to minimize trade-offs and maximize access to aid for populations most vulnerable to an emergency: provide more data on where federal assistance lands, issue guidance on how federal funding can explicitly address racial disparities, and do not wait for a crisis to help localities prepare, design, and fund equity-centered relief programs.