By Zachary Oren Smith, Iowa Public Radio
An activist group claims Johnson County left the Congolese community out of its COVID pandemic assistance program. But that’s not the whole story.
A group of Congolese residents wants Johnson County to reopen its Direct Assistance Program.
Johnson County was the only one of 99 counties in the state to take some of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money and put it directly into the pockets of low-income residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It gave $1,400 checks to 2,242 residents.
But advocacy group Escucha Mi Voz claimed the county’s outreach to Congolese residents was lacking.
On Monday, Escucha Mi Voz brought 15 Congolese residents to a Johnson County Board of Supervisors meeting. Residents asked the board to reopen the Direct Assistance Program for a second round of applications. Among them was Perry Makumi, a worker at the Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction. He said it was unfair for his community to find out about the assistance after the checks had already been cut.
“We have been working as essential workers during the pandemic time. We think we were left out of the Direct Assistance Program,” Makumi said. “So we are here to find if the Johnson County can invest more money for most of the people who have been left out to receive their check.”
Escucha Mi Voz and sister organization Iowa City Catholic Worker have been working to sign Iowans up for assistance through the Farm and Food Workers Relief program. According to a press release, it was during this process that they learned many workers who were eligible for the Johnson County Direct Assistance Program never applied because they didn’t know about it.
IPR News reached out to Johnson County which confirmed it did not directly contact all 157,248 county residents. But it did work notify Congolese residents. It made applications available in languages that included French and partnered with institutions like Center for Worker Justice to help people apply. While only 11 French applications were turned in, many of the 2,000 English applications were submitted by non-native English speakers with the help of interpreters.
The county also engaged with Congolese community leaders like former community president Peter Nukumu.
“I think the group that is claiming today that they didn’t know about it are the people who learned about it after they heard some people got the money,” said Nukumu, who works for the county’s General Assistance Program. “But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the county didn’t inform the people adequately.”
In December, the county Board of Supervisors takes up the budget. It could choose to reallocate money and fund the Direct Assistance Program. But Supervisor Pat Heiden says it would require the county to take the money from other programs. Those could include an affordable housing project, a gun violence prevention program and a compliance tracking system for domestic abuse parolees. Needs, she said, outpaced resources.
“We had to look at the entire picture, and not just this one project,” Heiden said. “And so we had to make hard decisions.”