- The US instituted unprecedented welfare programs during the pandemic.
- People have suddenly realized what the government is capable of doing for them.
- We must fight to keep and expand these programs in the future.
- P.E. Moskowitz is an author, runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology, and is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
A few weeks ago, I went to a New York City-run COVID-19 testing site. I had booked my appointment online the day before. The appointment itself took five minutes. My PCR test results, which take two days or more to come back nearly everywhere else, were ready in two hours.
It was a similar experience to get my vaccine. In a converted high school gym in Brooklyn, I was efficiently shuffled through registration, the shot, and the waiting period to make sure I didn’t have any adverse reactions. The high school saw thousands of people a day. At the peak of the vaccination drive, New York City was vaccinating over 100,000 people a day. And at the peak of the United States’ vaccination campaign, the country got 3.38 million doses into people’s arms in one day.
What was remarkable about this unprecedented vaccination drive, and my testing experience in New York, was how unremarkable they felt. Given our government’s usual propensity to make everything from getting a driver’s license to signing up for healthcare as hard as possible, the smoothness of many of the government services that popped up during the pandemic were near-miraculous, More importantly, they were proof that when they’re properly funded, government services run more efficiently than their privately-run counterparts. Imagine if everything could be this easy.
During the pandemic, a popular far-right talking point has been that COVID is a front for a socialist agenda – an opportunity for the government to institute more programs, more central control over the economy, and more regulation. And in a way, these conspiracies have a kernel of truth at the center: The pandemic has forced Americans to really consider the most efficient and effective ways to keep people safe and healthy, and it turns out the way to do that is through massive government involvement and investment.
Unfortunately the amount of investment in public health was not nearly enough to hold back the pandemic – the US response to COVID was uneven and inadequate. Instead of paying people to stay home, using targeted lockdowns to prevent the spread, and providing an alternative to our privatized, patchwork healthcare system, the US let states and corporations handle most of the pandemic, with disastrous result – the US has one of the highest levels of deaths per 100,000 people of any country in the world.
But the overwhelmingly negative response to COVID in this country overshadowed programs that really did work to keep people healthy and economically stable. New York City, for example, passed a $US99 ($AU133) billion budget – its highest ever – to help with its COVID response. That’s why I was able to get tested quickly and easily. That’s part of the reason New York’s death rate from COVID-19 has remained largely flat since the start of the pandemic while other states have surged over and over again. In other states with less-well-funded public programs, simply getting a test can be an arduous process that takes days.
And even at the federal level, the US instituted unprecedented public programs: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented a first-of-its-kind federal eviction moratorium, which was unfortunately overturned by the Supreme Court, but still kept countless people housed during the pandemic. The government is still distributing tens of billions of dollars of rental assistance. In an extremely rare show of bipartisanship, the US government passed the CARES Act at the beginning of the pandemic, which provided thousands of dollars in direct relief to Americans, allowed tens of millions of workers to claim unemployment benefits, and propped up local governments and economies.
Every American got direct payments of a few thousand dollars that were responsible for a dramatic decrease in poverty and food insecurity, and a dramatic increase in the mental wellbeing of Americans. Families struggling to pay for basic household expenses dropped from 23% to 13% after two rounds of pandemic stimulus checks, according to one survey. Of course, poverty, food insecurity, and the mental health issues stemming from these issues existed long before the pandemic, so there’s no reason that addressing these issues directly with money should stop now.
The government’s vast spending also likely stopped us from going into a deeper or more drawn out recession.
But then, politicians came to their senses: They realized these programs – not surprisingly – were popular, and even worse, they were teaching Americans to expect their government to actually work for them. This was a problem, because it deviated from the usual playbook used by our austerity-minded government: Run things on a shoestring budget (or defund them), and then claim that the government doesn’t work.
But Americans have seen that the government can work when it’s funded, and there’s no going back from that.
Welfare isn’t a dirty word
There’s no evidence that cutting government programs benefits anyone, ever, but that hasn’t stopped American politicians from claiming that people relying on the government is dangerous and will lead to the destruction of American society. Under President Ronald Reagan, the myth of the “welfare queen” – someone who would take advantage of handouts to live large – was born. The motive behind this disparagement was, simply, greed. By kicking people off welfare and forcing Americans to expect less from our government, politicians could afford to give money to the people who need it least – the super-rich and corporations (who in turn fund the campaigns of those politicians). The massive rise in inequality seen in the last 40 years is a direct result of gutting these programs and transferring their funding to the wealthy.
But it wasn’t only Republicans who trashed government assistance. Bill Clinton campaigned for president largely on the idea that he would get Americans off government assistance. The US has been facing a multi-decade anti-welfare campaign by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The anti-government-assistance myths we’ve been told are always racially charged: white Americans are less likely to support government assistance – even if they rely on it – if they think it’s going to people of color.
But now the anti-welfare crowd is in a conundrum. The money, assistance, and protections given to Americans during the pandemic are popular, and many Americans are starting to favor more progressive policies. The same old arguments about welfare making people lazy aren’t holding up anymore.
The way the United States handled the pandemic is far from commendable, but if we don’t recognize the policies and programs that did work, then we won’t be able to fight for their continuation and expansion in the future.