On September 4, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order temporarily halting residential evictions in the United States. The order, made under the Public Health Service Act, was intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and was issued in part because states had different levels of protection against eviction. A few months later, Congress authorized billions in rental assistance. These two efforts were unrelated – one sought to limit the possibility of exposure to the virus due to eviction while the other sought to prevent evictions due to rent nonpayment – but they were generally linked in the public eye.
Why was there such a concern about eviction? Emergency orders across the country shuttered workplaces early in the pandemic. The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program initially sought to loan money to companies that continued to pay wages, agreeing to waive repayment if the companies kept the bulk of their staff employed. The loans ran out several times, though, and some companies recognized the simply laying off employees would be far easier than taking on loans they weren’t sure they’d ever repay. After all, if you took on federal loans but ended up closing down anyway, you might be on the hook for repayment.
So to address growing unemployment, boosted unemployment assistance – with no work-search requirements – came into effect. That assistance meant millions of Americans could keep paying their bills, including their rent. Stimulus payments injected money into the economy to keep it aloft. A massive spending bill lowered health insurance costs for Americans who purchase insurance through public health insurance exchanges.
With Americans able to collect decent unemployment checks, companies had to boost wages to lure them back. As business lamented ‘oppressive’ public restrictions, the public continued to favor social distancing and masking measures.
With boosted unemployment assistance, lower-cost healthcare, and the end of evictions, many left-leaning Americans had accidentally stumbled into the kind of America they’d long hoped for.
“A key aspect of the vaccine’s rollout success was its accessibility to the public as a result of funding from the federal government… This begs the question: what if our whole healthcare system was single-payer?”Anish Mohanty
Now, let’s be clear: more than 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and in terms of deaths, infections, and financial costs, Americans of color bore a worse impact from the COVID-19 pandemic than white Americans. Violence against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans rose sharply during the pandemic. A public health crisis is not a rosy time of good cheer.
But the social safety net that was hastily constructed during the pandemic resembled, in many ways, what socialists and even some moderate Democrats have been demanding for years.
Consider student loans. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has insisted for years that student loan interest should be cut, something that finally – albeit temporarily – happened during the pandemic.
Or how about healthcare? For a country that runs up billions of dollars in emergency room bills a year, we suddenly were able to implement an enormous nationwide free vaccination program. Loyola Marymount University student Anish Mohanty noted in April, “A key aspect of the vaccine rollout’s success was its accessibility to the public as a result of funding from the federal government. According to the CDC, “The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to all people living in the United States, regardless of their immigration or health insurance status.” This begs the question: what if our whole healthcare system was single-payer?”
For about a year, the United States had a glimpse into a future where the government mandated actions that would help the community at large even if it could harm business interests. It was a future with healthcare access and one without evictions. It’s easy to see why people are clinging to this moment in time.
Reopening the country means a return to normal, and normal is a world with no eviction moratorium even though rents continue to rise. It means that those wage hikes were likely temporary, as special pandemic unemployment ends and millions of Americans begin to return to a job market that has millions of job openings. The moment of power that individuals had during the pandemic is passing, and it’s not clear when we’ll get it back.
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