The Lesson Americans Never Learn

Trying to replace the government with personal initiative requires an impossible amount of energy.

Getty / The Atlantic

Across the country, parents are using Facebook to form “pandemic pods,” hiring tutors or out-of-work teachers to educate their kids as school district after school district announces that it will go partially or fully virtual. Beloved mom-and-pop stores are flooding sites such as GoFundMe to seek support from their sheltered-in-place patrons. Sick people are relying on COVID-19 relief funds and hospital-bill crowdfunding campaigns. And civic entrepreneurs are forming organizations that buy meals from down-on-their-luck restaurants and ferry them to exhausted essential workers.

These developments are a sign of American ingenuity. They are a measure of American community and can-do spirit, unleashed by social media and digital organizing. They are also a tragedy. The United States is forcing its citizens to bootstrap their way through a global catastrophe, saddling traumatized families with the burden of public administration and amplifying the country’s inequalities.

In functioning high-income countries, the government guarantees the provision of essential goods and services: medical care, transit between cities, supplies for public schools, financial support to weather a period of unemployment. But here, the government often fails to provide them. Need gives birth to invention, as well as deprivation.

Long before 2020, many Americans were in the position of patching their own safety net and acting as their own city hall. They sought computers, crayons, and paper for elementary-school classrooms through online campaigns. They fell back on crowdfunding sites after a car accident, an appendectomy, a fight with cancer, a premature birth. They used ride-sharing when the bus never came.

Now the pandemic has shredded the country’s education infrastructure, decimated its network of child-care providers, eliminated millions of low-income jobs, forced the closure of hundreds of thousands of small businesses, and killed 170,000 people and counting. Thousands of people on the verge of eviction, thousands of businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, thousands of parents desperate for someone to watch their kids are turning to friends, family, and strangers on the internet for help.

America insists on repeating this lesson over and over and over again, never really learning it: No amount of private initiative or donor generosity can or will ever do what the government can. First, individuals, nonprofits, and companies simply don’t have the resources to provide public services at scale. A majority of GoFundMes do not reach their stated fundraising goal, with many never raising any money at all. Despite all those campaigns to save restaurants and bars, Yelp reported that 140,000 businesses listed on its service have closed since the pandemic recession started, many never to reopen; saving them would likely have required billions of dollars. Americans rack up nearly $90 billion in medical debt every year, more than twice the amount given to health-related charities.

Second, household income, charitable giving, business profits, and corporate investment all tend to be cyclical phenomena. When the economy collapses, they collapse. If the mill in a mill city shuts down, for instance, the city’s schools lose financing, its citizens lose their health insurance, its local nonprofits see a drop in donations, and its businesses see their turnover erode, all at once. Everybody has greater needs when everybody has less to give. Not so for the federal government, which runs a deficit in good times and a much bigger one in bad times. Its job is to flood individuals, businesses, and nonprofits with cash when an economic catastrophe hits. When it does not do that, other entities cannot bridge the macroeconomic gap.

Third, asking individuals to rely on themselves, their families, and their networks when trouble hits does not just reinforce existing disparities; it widens them, often along class, racial, and geographic lines. Consider how PTAs have become not just nice ways for parents to become involved in their children’s schools, but crass amplifiers of educational inequality. Parents in rich zip codes raise money for telescopes and enrichment classes, all the while refusing to redistribute desperately needed cash to schools in poorer zip codes. (This is, of course, just icing on the cake, with property-tax financing and districting policies doing the baking.) Now everything’s a PTA, if organized online, backdropped in Millennial pink, written in sans serif font, and whipped up with hashtags.

The country’s current school debacle puts these bootstrap-induced inequities in stark relief. Rich families are hiring tutors to supervise their kids as they go to Zoom school, or are forming one-room schools with in-person instruction for their children. Meanwhile, poor families are facing neglect charges for not managing the digital transition well enough, giving rise to the new, revolting phrase virtual truants to describe kids who cannot or do not show up on-screen. More broadly, many low-income parents are facing the quandary of whether to leave their kids alone to go to work or to quit their jobs and slide into poverty in order to supervise their children during the day. Experts are already warning that the pandemic might drive a bigger wedge between rich kids’ and poor kids’ educational outcomes, and perhaps even widen the country’s income gap.

Finally, trying to replace the government with personal initiative requires an impossible amount of energy: raising money for your post-COVID-19 convalescence, working with multiple providers and a Kafkaesque health-payments infrastructure. Setting up a temporary school for your high-needs kid, interviewing teachers and working out payroll on your own. Figuring out how to get an Uber to an infrequent train to an unpredictable bus line to make it to your job. Liaising with dozens of nonprofits to save your restaurant. Searching for a day care, then arranging a nanny-share, then arguing for a reduced-price slot in a nursery school, because the United States has no public child-care and preschool system. It is exhausting.

Taking on the obligation of public administration is a time suck and an attention suck, not just a money suck. And this necessity also, in its own way, amplifies the country’s existing disparities. People who are sick, poor, unemployed—these are the people we task with writing up a heartrending story and going hat-in-hand online. These are the people burdened with performing their trauma to garner support, bringing the public into their cancer journey, explaining what eviction and homelessness has meant, begging for someone to help so that they do not have to fire their staff and shut their doors.

The answer that virtually every other rich country has figured out: The government should act like a government, like its job is to provide these things. It should replace people’s income when a recession hits, and help businesses struggling through no fault of their own. It should guarantee simple, affordable access to medical care. It should provide child care and public education for families. And it should invest in trains and buses and classrooms. Fighting recessions and building public infrastructure, including care, health, and educational infrastructure—this should not be the work of citizens. When it is, let’s acknowledge that’s a tragedy.