It’s Taken a Pandemic to Make Politicians Take Note of Our Basic Needs

The COVID-19 public health emergency is unleashing something most out of the ordinary in U.S. politics.

From Blue California to Red Texas, we are seeing examples of creative thinking in how to help those worst hit by the health crisis as well as its resulting economic devastation.

The House of Representative’s passage on March 14 of a major economic relief bill in response to the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic is the leading example of the unusual openness to something approaching bipartisanship that has emerged in U.S. politics over the past week. Largely driven by Democratic Party policy priorities, it expanded paid family and sick leave, bolstered unemployment insurance, bulked up food programs for the young and the elderly — two groups likely to be left particularly vulnerable by the crisis — and ensured that the people who needed to be tested and treated for coronavirus wouldn’t be left in the lurch because they lacked insurance.

Given that Trump announced his support for the legislation, and given the rapidity with which tens of millions of Americans have moved in the past week from economic security to complete insecurity and fear, it’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell’s GOP senators blocking the package from becoming law.

The bill isn’t perfect; notably, at Republican insistence, the scope of the paid sick leave requirement has been heavily watered down, allowing hardship opt-outs for small businesses as well as limits on which big companies it applies to. But however flawed the bill is, it is, nevertheless, an extraordinary departure from recent legislative stalemate and from a GOP philosophy that for more than a generation now has viewed all government spending on social programs as bad and all efforts to expand the social safety net as somehow undermining the U.S. economic system.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was also forced to backpedal on implementing its awful new public charge rules, which discourage immigrants from using public benefits such as Medicaid by holding such usage as a reason to deny them a green card or citizenship. Late last week, the agency sent out a notice saying that immigrants who think they might have coronavirus should come forward for testing and treatment, even if they need to rely on public benefits to secure those services, and that this wouldn’t be held against them vis-à-vis their residency and citizenship applications. It was as close as USCIS ever comes to eating humble pie.

Add into the mix the fact that governors and big-city mayors are now also moving at extraordinary speed to try to protect working-class and middle-class people from bearing the full brunt of the economic catastrophe unleashed by the pandemic, and it’s clear that the U.S.’s social compact at the back end of this crisis will look dramatically different from how it looked going in.

Indeed, during the somewhat surreal debate between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden on Sunday night — a debate with no live audience, in which the three moderators sat safely socially spaced from each other and from the two candidates — both men advocated cutting all red tape so that everyone would have access to free testing for the virus, free treatment, and economic recompense so that their livelihoods and their ability to pay their monthly bills wouldn’t be destroyed by the quarantine and the social spacing measures that are being taken over the coming weeks and months to slow the epidemic’s advance.

Sanders went further, arguing that uninsured and underinsured people should never face bankruptcy as a result of health emergencies; and that workers should always be assisted in weathering economic downturns. And while Sanders is growing increasingly unlikely to be the Democratic torchbearer this November, given Biden’s string of wins in recent primaries, the enormity of the COVID-19 moment will likely only make his broad arguments more relevant and more popular over the months and years ahead. After all, if medical bills are waived for COVID-19 testing, it may become harder to then turn around and tell people that their heart attacks, their cancer, their flus and all their other serious ailments oughtn’t also to be treated in a rational, humane way.

Perhaps more surprisingly, on Monday Mitt Romney essentially endorsed the idea of a temporary Universal Basic Income, with the government paying out $1,000 to every adult as a way to keep spending up while jobs are being lost and businesses are being mandatorily closed.

The longer this extraordinary public health emergency goes on, and the more our daily routines are entirely upended, the more likely it is that we will see not just a tinkering with social safety systems but ultimately a transformation of the relationship between government and governed. That could be either good or bad, depending on whether it expands the social safety net or, conversely, results in evermore authoritarian, surveillance-based, military strategies, both to contain the epidemic and also to secure global supply chains as normal markets break down.

But the lesson of the last weeks is clear: If there was ever a time to think big, it is now. And if progressives want to shape the coming political debates, they ought to be proposing their solutions now.

It was during World War II that the fabled Beveridge Report was written, laying out the groundwork for the post-war National Health Service and broader welfare system in Britain. The report’s mantra was “abolition of want,” and it led to a wholesale reimagining of British society: the right to health care is what the report is best known for, but it actually paved the way for a huge expansion of the welfare system, from comprehensive child benefits, to unemployment payments and guaranteed state pensions. Indeed, one can argue that its publication, in late 1942, provided an impetus to struggle through the grim days of the war in order to reach a day when the social reforms proposed in the report came to pass.

I suspect that the magnitude and suddenness of the disruption caused by today’s pandemic, the sure knowledge that for months on end our lives will be constricted and confined, filled with peril and with uncertainty, will eventually reshape U.S. society in similarly profound ways. The signs are already there, visible in locales around the country. After all, it’s not only, or even mainly, at the federal level that creative responses are already percolating.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Michael Garcetti announced the closure of all restaurants, bars and clubs until at least March 31. But, at the same time, he also put in place a moratorium on all evictions during that same time period. Statewide, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would push for similar limits on evictions, and also promised that the state would undertake emergency efforts to open trailers and motels to tens of thousands of homeless residents, whose precarious health status makes them peculiarly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine has emerged as something of the GOP’s antithesis to Trump during this crisis: he shut down all restaurants and bars, but also ordered a change to the state’s unemployment laws so that the affected workers could access unemployment benefits immediately. In the city of Cleveland, drive-through COVID-19 test sites are being set up, as is the case in a number of other cities across the country, as cities and states, private companies and university medical centers rush to fill the void left by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s inability to get adequate numbers of test kits out.

In Texas — a state where, not too many weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to prove his hardline credentials by barring the settlement of all refugees — politicians suddenly got a touch of social conscience when it came to hungry children and managed to secure a waiver allowing poor kids to still get their free school lunches even in the event of schools in the state being shuttered.

It’s not going to all come with executive orders and ad hoc policy-making, however. It’s also going to take a whole bunch of creative thinking on our part, as residents of cities and states move increasingly into lockdown and mass quarantine. How, for example, can we as members of communities whose economic success we all have a stake in, support individuals in informal economies and shuttered businesses during prolonged lockdowns?

This is a moment in which people whose income streams are not drying up — people employed in stable work with salaries that they will continue to receive throughout this period of disruption — need to do all they can to continue to support the people and institutions they usually support, even when the services and goods they are paying for are made irrelevant by the crisis. If people in informal economies are to survive this catastrophic disruption, those who previously paid for child care or housecleaning or garden work or even manicures on a weekly basis will need to continue to pay for those services even if they are not receiving them due to social distancing and city shutdowns. And ideally, they would go beyond that, seeking to offer additional support to enable the most precarious workers in their communities to afford additional costs for medical care and more in this time of crisis.

For small businesses like bars and restaurants and cultural venues and community centers to survive, loyal patrons who have internet access may need to take creative measures like organizing social get-togethers online, talking via video chat over food or drinks. At the end of the evening, they could donate the amount of money that they would have spent at an in-person social gathering to the beloved local business. Perhaps we should be pressuring our cities or working with our chambers of commerce to create a mechanism for such a process. Doing so could allow smaller businesses to maintain a cash flow and thus keep their employees and their leases so that they are able to open for business again down the road when, eventually, conditions begin to normalize.

Open societies have always thrived because of their creativity, their dynamism and their ability to come up with innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. If enough people find creative methods to keep circulating money through local economies over the coming weeks and months, and if political figures step up with responses tailored to expand the social safety net in a significant way, we might at least avoid a complete breakdown of community-level economic functions.

It would be Pollyannaish to in any way talk about “silver linings” to this crisis. There’s nothing remotely good about the situation humans in every corner of the globe are now confronting. But a couple things are clear: the politics around social benefits such as health care access and paid sick leave will be forever changed by this shock to the system; and the places that survive with the least long-term economic devastation will be those that manage to marshal not only powerful state and federal resources, but also the immense creative impulses and sense of solidarity of their local populations.