With the U.S. reeling from COVID-19’s mounting death toll and extraordinary economic shock, Congress approved another half-trillion dollars to shore up small businesses, hospitals, and our still-lagging coronavirus testing regime last week. All told, Congress has now allocated about $3 trillion in just over a month, a figure that, under different circumstances, might make Bernie Sanders blush. Even so, these measures are stopgaps, quickly-thrown-together bailouts in the face of an unprecedented health emergency.
At the same time, there’s a growing chorus of progressives arguing that the current crisis requires a rigorous tightening of a social safety net that, as The New York Times editorialized earlier this month, has become “threadbare” over the past generation. So it’s worth assessing the chances that this epidemic and this massive wave of spending will usher in a new era of activist government.
Conservatives will bristle even at the suggestion that we need to enlarge the welfare state. After all, we already spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on a range of social programs. But what’s inarguable is that more of our citizens fall through our social safety net than do citizens in any other wealthy country.
We alone fail to insure virtually everyone. Child poverty, food insecurity, and other problems also afflict an unacceptable proportion of Americans and make us an outlier among rich countries.
Why? The question of who is deserving of government largesse has always anchored debates about the programs—and it’s always been inextricably tied to race. Extensive research has shown how opponents racialized President Johnson’s Great Society program to upend its goals.
That and other forces determined to push through a massive upward redistribution of wealth over the past 40 years have contributed mightily to our current state of affairs. The pandemic has exposed just how precarious economic circumstances are for millions of Americans who lack basic protections like paid sick leave that almost everyone else in the wealthy world takes for granted. Many Americans are at immediate risk of losing their health insurance and face a cascading series of shocks to their households as job losses mount into the tens of millions. The long lines of cars and people at food pantries are one depressing emblem of the current crisis.
Skeptics point to previous economic crises, including the 2007–09 financial meltdown, when massive government interventions gave way to a backlash against profligate spending. Much of that backlash was, of course, utterly cynical. Elected Republicans cared little about deficits when their party controlled the White House—as both the Bush and Trump administrations have ably demonstrated—but they screamed bloody murder starting right about the time Obama lifted his hand off the Bible at his first inauguration.
But there’s also a basic ambivalence among many ordinary Americans who both want to help the poor and also feel antsy about the government doing too much, particularly for those they believe are “able-bodied” and should be able to fend for themselves.
So how might the present crisis change that? Returning to paid sick leave, maybe the question of who deserves what looks different in light of a pandemic. Under normal circumstances, you might believe people should just work harder and find a better job if they want decent benefits.
But if people who are sick go to work, they risk spreading a deadly virus. Whatever my qualms about government-mandated benefits, universal paid sick leave isn’t really about giving someone else a handout. It’s a benefit to me and my loved ones. We might argue similarly about health insurance more broadly.
Additionally, the inevitably random nature of who is struck down by a deadly virus might also upend settled notions about what it means to deserve one’s fate. And there is certainly more attention being paid to “essential workers”—the nurses, food preparers, grocery store employees, and others whose labor is essential for our well-being and who, by and large, work for low wages and few protections. As Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, these workers are “sacrificial” as much as they are essential. Perhaps this prompts some folks to think differently about who deserves to have a strong net to catch people who need it.
None of this is dispositive. It’s just another reminder that there is no precedent for what we’re living through. Which means, perhaps, that we can’t really know whether, politically speaking, past is prologue.
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JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Twitter: @jonweiler.