Last week’s Bureau of Labor Statistics July jobs report showed a robust, 943,000-job increase from the month prior and a decrease in the unemployment rate, to 5.4%. However, the fact remains that the U.S. economy is still 6 million jobs short of where it was in February 2020—indicating there is still work to do.

Most notably, stark inequality persists between racial and ethnic groups and between places. For many people and places, the economy had never fully recovered from the Great Recession before the COVID-19 recession began. This ongoing distress has left millions of Americans facing limited prospects for finding well-paying, accessible work—damaging their quality of life.

This is why it’s important that Congress—as it considers additional investments to ensure the recovery continues—makes sure that it is deliberately and adequately investing in the distressed places that were left behind in the last recovery. Specifically, as we proposed in a new report, Congress should leverage the nation’s regional public universities as strategically located tools for reinvigorating many distressed areas. Such an initiative would be an important complement to other ongoing efforts to shore up distressed communities and counter the nation’s persistent regional divides.

Congress has already begun doing some of this work through the American Rescue Plan Act. Flexible state and local funding provisions in that legislation are providing significant support to places and people affected by the pandemic. Economic Development Agency programs such as the Build Back Better Regional Challenge promise to create a more equitable recovery. Still, Congress will need to do more to counter geographic economic divergence, which has been growing for nearly 40 years.

Read the full article about the struggles of left-behind communities by Robert Maxim and Mark Muro at Brookings.