The Pandemic Could Change How Americans View Government

Congress’s push to temporarily expand the social safety net may have the country asking one big question: Why only now?

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The economic fallout is here. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are losing their jobs, watching small businesses around them close up shop, and fretting about their retirement savings. It’s a bleak scenario that has lawmakers scrambling to soften the blow: Yesterday, Congress passed a relief package that temporarily mandates paid sick and family leave for some workers, expands unemployment insurance, and increases funding for food stamps and Medicaid—and that could be only the beginning of the government’s response.

The federal government’s efforts are intended to help Americans get through the short-term tumult of the pandemic, but the long-term effect could be even more consequential: As more Americans see what the government can do for them, they may begin to change their views on the role that it plays in their lives—and not just during a pandemic. In other words, it could give life to the argument, most common on the left, that big government can be, and do, good.

This wouldn’t be the first time that an expansion of the social safety net has reshaped people’s views of what the government should provide for them. The legacy of the New Deal of the 1930s, for example, wasn’t just the creation of policies such as Social Security and the minimum wage, but also a heightened sense that the government should guarantee a basic standard of living for all Americans. As a result, despite funding cuts and many efforts to roll back the New Deal, nearly all of the policies that passed during that era are still in existence today.

More recently, the same dynamic played out with the Affordable Care Act. Though the law was fairly unpopular when it first passed, it drew more support from Americans over time. In fact, while the GOP ran on repealing the law for the better part of a decade after its passage in 2010, Republicans quickly changed their message from “repeal” to “repeal and replace” when it became clear that most Americans didn’t want the law to go away—a tacit acknowledgment that the country would not be returning to a pre-ACA era. Even when Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, they repeatedly failed to overturn the ACA—though the administration has undermined the law in other ways.

“The attempt to delegitimize the Affordable Care Act is to delegitimize the idea that government can actually do things to help the lives of citizens,” Kenneth W. Mack, a Harvard University law professor, told me.

As the federal government prepares to boost Americans’ economic prospects during the coronavirus pandemic, the expansion of the social safety net could reacquaint people with the government’s power to help them make ends meet. “I don’t think anyone alive at this moment is going to forget this [pandemic],” Jason Furman, who served as the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, told me. “If we had paid leave, we’d be in better shape right now.”

Though Americans tend to have an aversion to “big government,” it’s possible that the relief bill, and other aid passed by Congress, will follow the same trend as past social programs: A reluctant public will not only come to rely on the policies, but begin to expect them as a right. “When the government responds in a crisis like this and rolls out specific policies that help people ... they’re not taken for granted,” Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell University, told me. “And when the government’s role in [those policies] is really visible, that really helps with people’s sense that the government is being responsive to people like them.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans’ fear of big government will entirely disappear. This relief effort “certainly is likely to give people a more positive attitude about those particular policies,” Mettler said. “Whether it does about government more generally is a broader question.”

Still, there’s one question that many Americans could start asking as Congress steps in to help them survive this economic crisis: Why is the government only doing this for me now?