Record inflation. Weekly mass shootings. A raging new Covid subvariant. The Supreme Court taking away our freedoms. America isn’t our usual dumpster fire self at the moment—we’re a burning landfill.

It’s easy to forget that public institutions and services—the post office, public schools, the DMV, food inspection, garbage collection—are humming along in the background, keeping people alive, making our lives better, keeping us healthy and safe.

It’s even easier to forget that the federal government gave $350 million in budget relief to state and local governments last year as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

Turns out, states and localities are doing some pretty amazing things with that money.

Madison, Wisconsin, created an organization called Occupy Madison, which is building villages of tiny houses for the previously homeless. The houses even include solar panels, so residents don’t have to pay for power—which cost the city a mere $150,000.

Minnesota gave public schools a total of $34.6 million to expand summer academic and mental health support for students.

Chula Vista, California, is developing an intergenerational community center for the arts. “Family, grandparents, and grandchildren or parents and children will be working together on the artwork,” a research specialist at the National League of Cities told Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene for Route Fifty.

Lexington County, South Carolina, paid “premium payments”—or bonuses—to essential public employees ranging from $2,015 to $4,900.

Detroit instituted a right to legal counsel for tenants facing eviction, funding it for the first three years with the federal money.

Wisconsin invested more into its Worker Advancement Initiative, offering subsidized employment and skills training opportunities with local employers to unemployed workers.

To be sure—as the Economic Policy Institute has documented—many states and localities have spent relief money in ways that don’t actually improve the lives of working and poor people. At least 21 states, for example, used money to replenish unemployment insurance funding, which has little impact on economic growth and effectively amounts to a tax cut for businesses.

But, what a novel idea! If we just adequately fund our public institutions, good things can happen.

Now, we just have to make the rich and powerful pay their fair share in taxes so the government can do its thing.

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