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In Defense of Free Stuff During (and After) the Pandemic

The mass expansion of public goods is long past due, so pay people to stay home, give them free health care, and stop charging tuition.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank for New York City

There’s nothing the American government hates more than handouts, at least those that are intended for anyone who isn’t already rich. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson stressed that the War on Poverty was meant to be a “hand up, not a handout”; in 2012, Mitt Romney famously derided the “47 percent” of Americans living off the government’s largesse at a private fundraiser. More recently, Amy Klobuchar became the voice of “common sense” when she dismissed Medicare for All as a “pipe dream.” Year after year, Republicans and Democrats alike have maligned most attempts to alleviate the worst harms of capitalism as pleas for “free stuff.” The current crisis, however, reveals that the alternative to government intervention is the rise of extreme hardship for the many, alongside obscene wealth for the few. According to recent estimates, up to 28 million people could soon face eviction, and food insecurity in the United States has doubled. Meanwhile, billionaires have seen their combined riches increase by around $583 billion since the start of the pandemic, and corporations have secured swift bailouts while continuing to lay off workers. Why not fight for some free stuff for the rest of us?

To put it a bit more elegantly, we could stand to resurrect what the historian Touré Reed has called a “public-good-oriented domestic agenda,” or a political platform that guarantees the provision of certain fundamental resources—such as health care, education, and housing—to all people. These things might make up the much-derided “free stuff,” but they’re also, after all, the basic trappings of a decent life. That kind of vision famously defined the federal programs of the New Deal, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Black labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin further pressed to expand such a domestic agenda. As organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and architects of the ambitious policy document “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” Randolph and Rustin called for a jobs guarantee, universal housing and health care, a higher minimum wage, and other reforms to ensure a minimum standard of living for all Americans, no matter their income, and achieve civil rights and full political inclusion for Black Americans. “It is not visionary or utopian. It is feasible. It is concrete. It is specific. It is quantitative,” Randolph wrote in the introduction to the Freedom Budget. “And it places the responsibility for leadership with the Federal Government, which alone has the resources equal to the task.”

In a pandemic, you only have to look at our chaotic national health care system to see why leaving basic necessities to the various whims and predations of the market almost always results in disaster. America’s arcane arrangement of private, employer-sponsored insurance and means-tested programs like Medicaid was always inadequate, but it’s turned especially nightmarish during a public health emergency where even patients with insurance have been hit with massive bills for receiving Covid-19 treatment or even just getting tested. As my colleague Libby Watson has pointed out, conceiving of health care as a commodity and not a public good has also opened the door for pharmaceutical companies like Gilead to charge exorbitant prices for drugs used in the treatment of Covid—which could also include future vaccines—despite the fact that these companies’ research is funded in part by the government (that is to say, the public).

The same goes for higher education, which, after decades of soaring costs, was essentially unaffordable for most families without taking on debt even before the pandemic. Recently, several elite universities—including private institutions like Harvard and public universities like Rutgers and the University of California schools—announced they would still charge students full tuition, despite moving classes online for the upcoming academic year. And that’s while the Department of Education has continued to garnish the wages and tax refunds of around 285,000 people with outstanding federal student loans even though the Cares Act mandated a temporary freeze on student loan payments. “These are borrowers who were in distress on their loans already,” Persis Yu, the director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, told Politico. “They’re the ones holding the bag with the department’s inability to get this done, whatever the department’s intentions are.”

Some free stuff from the government, as it were, would not only have spared people from economic misery but could have also staved off the new explosion in Covid cases across the U.S. Early on in the pandemic, countries like Germany and the U.K. subsidized employers to keep furloughed workers on payroll so businesses could close and workers could safely stay home; those countries, unsurprisingly, have seen Covid cases decline over the same time period that cases here have surged. Meanwhile, Americans got a one-time $1,200 check and functional threats from state governments and the president to head back to work once that money ran out. Last week, a group of more than 150 economists called for recurring payments during the pandemic. “Direct cash payments are an essential tool that will boost economic security, drive consumer spending, hasten the recovery, and promote certainty at all levels of government and the economy,” they wrote in a letter. It’s a simple, humane solution to a pandemic that is only made worse the more we call on people to return to “normal”: Pay people to stay home.

But the bitterest irony underlying the lack of sustained federal aid in this moment, of course, is that working people in the U.S. have already paid in advance for so-called free stuff from the government. As the economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez have shown, billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the bottom 50 percent of earners in 2018. Another recent report, commissioned from the Congressional Budget Office by Bernie Sanders, further found that the top one percent was responsible for 70 percent of all unpaid taxes between 2011 and 2013, which amounted to more than $380 billion in lost revenue per year. “With the money that these tax cheats owe, this year alone, we could fund tuition-free college for all, eliminate child hunger, ensure clean drinking water for every American household, build half a million affordable housing units, provide masks to all, produce the protective gear and medical supplies our health workers need to combat this pandemic, and fully fund the U.S. Postal Service,” Sanders said in a statement. There’s certainly a case to be made for the establishment and expansion of these programs during times of relative prosperity—such as when the Freedom Budget was written—but an economic collapse perhaps even more starkly necessitates such a project.

To an extent, Democrats seem to agree as of late, though their vision still falls far short of what’s needed. Recently, a task force convened by Biden and Sanders surrogates called for an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, a $15 minimum wage, and increased labor protections. In its recommendations, it wrote, “Democrats commit to forging a new social and economic contract with the American people—a contract that invests in the people and promotes shared prosperity, not one that benefits only big corporations and the wealthiest few.” But though that document is a start, it’s also far too modest and nonbinding. No matter how bleak the coming months might be, we’re all still at the mercy of the market.