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.
Annie Lowrey: The pandemic proved that cash payments work
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.