For over thirty years now, there’s been a specter haunting America. You can see it codified in our most contentious laws, touted by leading reform candidates, and offered by brands looking to tap into the ever-widening class of value shoppers. Its name? Affordability. But what does it actually mean? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

For a few decades now, the concept of affordability has been used as a tool to remove vital institutions from the public and then offer them back to the public via the private market. Great education would now be available through subsidized “affordable” loans to flagship public institutions, whereas before a summer job would pay the tuition for most in-state colleges; housing speculation has priced out the lower and middle-classes from major American cities, with “affordable” housing being offered in return on some of the floors of new market-rate developments; health care companies are now actively subsidized by the government through exchanges meant to make care “affordable” without cutting into any company’s profits. What were once rights, in other words, have become commodities.  

In the post-war era of the late 1970s, collectivization projects—like large-scale public housing, the GI Bill, expansion of public universities, universal healthcare for the poorest Americans, etc.—were quietly gutted by privatization efforts led by small-government ideologues who individualized how our government spends money and directs policy. The federal government pivoted away from subsidizing the incomes of poor people to focusing on handouts to the already wealthy. Trickle-down economics went from bunk theory to federal mandate. By the time a Democrat returned to the White House in 1992, the idea that a private marketplace was much better suited to meet the most important needs of American citizens was sacrosanct. What was once “public”—provided freely or very cheaply by the government for its people—had been replaced with goods referred to as “affordable.” Citizens had been left to shoulder their cost.

But what did it all mean? The affordability revolution was supposed to optimize public services; we were to trust the market in its infinite wisdom, and forget the fact that “the market” was (and is) composed of fallible humans. Hadn’t we struck a grand bargain between the masters of capitalism and the American people, the government wisely inserting controls into the marketplace to ensure that no citizen goes without shelter, health care, or access to knowledge? Sadly, no. We sold ourselves out. The idea of an “affordable” good is one that’s only affordable because you have no other choice. It just means that so many tax dollars have already flowed to the private interests that those same companies can afford to charge slightly less than they do regularly.  

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010—possibly the greatest achievement of affordability politics—put health care within reach of millions of uninsured Americans. The government did this by subsidizing the payment of insurance plans, leaving company profits intact but putting health insurance within financial reach for low-income workers. Even so, insurance on the marketplace is still out of some people’s price range. The biggest success of the Affordable Care Act was its expansion of Medicaid, which simply skips the subsidization of corporate profits and just had the government pay for health care on its own for its poorest citizens. Shockingly, that proviso has proven to be the most cost-effective measure included in the ACA.

Even in liberal New York City, the goal posts for the public’s rights have been moved far, far down the field. Earlier this month, the City Council passed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature housing policy: two acts known as “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” Each aim to tackle the affordable housing crisis in New York City, where the cost of living has pushed low-income New Yorkers out of the city or into homeless shelters.

The plans operate by giving concessions to developers (higher zoning regulations, tax breaks, actual subsidies) in exchange for affordable new apartments. De Blasio’s plan is similar to former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s, whose 80/20 plan (80 percent market rate dwellings, 20 percent affordable) barely made a dent in the housing crisis—recently, we’ve seen the homeless population in New York City soar to upwards of 60,000 people. De Blasio’s plan was met with outrage and scorn from community groups, who formed a coalition named Real Affordability for All in response. The groups wanted to emphasize just how flawed a concept the idea of affordability had become; the metric of affordability, Area Median Income, isn’t even determined by the city’s own median income, but those of its wealthy suburbs as well. Their call for “real” affordability lobbied for a 50/50 split between market-rate and low-income housing for all new developments; they urged a return to the time when government mandated the construction of new homes for low-income peoples, instead of just handing concessions to developers in the hope they would follow through with promises. (Often times, they don’t.) At the last minute, Real Affordability for All signed on to the housing plan in exchange for a compromise: The plan would include options for developers to build apartments for New Yorkers with especially low-incomes, but the number of those units would be left to developers.

Even though “affordability” replaced simple public goods, the idea was never to help Americans, because privatization is necessarily about company profit. That’s the whole point of the market: It rests on human beings driven by money, which means it’s not, in the end, about people. Across the country, activists are seeing the limits of this type of politics. It’s no wonder that a candidate promising free college and the long-delayed promise of universal healthcare is surging in the polls. Americans are looking at their housing and health care options and want to be able to afford something much, much better.

When nominally liberal politicians like President Obama or New York Mayor Bill de Blasio talk affordability, they’re not speaking about whether citizens can afford something. They mean to ask how much they can do to entice private interests. And as a political concept, affordability isn’t tangible. Our own tax money is used to puff up marketplaces that no longer serve the needs of the average American. Affordable goods—in the form of health care, education, and housing—have become a rallying cry for the left. In practice, though, it really only means one thing: That you got sold out.