In a crisis, even conservatives turn to progressive economic policies

In a crisis, even conservatives turn to progressive economic policies
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The COVID-19 crisis has suddenly turned even conservatives into proponents of inclusive, middle-class economics. The historic, $2.2 trillion stimulus bill just passed unanimously by Congress is focused on sending money to people to keep the economy from cratering. It concedes the point to what progressives have said all along — that spending by everyday Americans, not corporate profits, is what drives the economy. 

The new law will send checks to people, even those with incomes too low for taxes, without worrying about making them “government dependents.” It extends and increases unemployment insurance, which Republicans have long worked to restrict. It forgives loans to small and medium businesses if they keep people on the payroll. After years of resistance, Republicans approved paid sick days and family and medical leave, another way to keep money in the pockets of working peoples. 

Trump is turning people who can’t pay the rent, payment, mortgage or student loan from dead-beats into deserving Americans. Republicans even agreed to tie bail-outs for big business to no stock buybacks for a period of a year, although it would have been far more effective if corporations were required to use the funds to keep people working, as several European countries have done. That should be at the core of the next federal COVID bill. 

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But lost in this turn-around is the fact that decades of trickle-down economics have made the U.S. poorly prepared for the economic catastrophe triggered by COVID-19. Half of the families are living paycheck-to-paycheck. A majority of families have little if any emergency savings and most Americans have little if any retirement income to fall back on. Health care costs weigh heavily on even people with insurance and 28 million people remain uninsured

Some 45 million Americans have $1.6 trillion in student debt. Wages have been virtually stagnant for forty years, while the wealthy few have gobbled up a huge share of economic growth. One-of-three families pay more than they can afford for housing. Most Americans don’t have paid family leave and most lower-paid workers don’t have paid sick days. Meanwhile, major corporations have spent trillions buying back stock to enrich their stockholders and executives, leaving them with few cash reserves to weather the crisis. 

The COVID-19 crisis is making one thing clear; our collective prosperity depends on the prosperity of each of us. When people are paid enough to care for and support their families, can educate their kids, afford health care and housing, shop in their neighborhoods and retire in security, that drives our economic prosperity. 

States have a crucial role in building on federal actions to be sure that people do drive economic recovery from the COVID recession. Moreover, states must reject austerity policies that will only deepen the crisis. Rather than retreat from the recession, states should but charge into it with public investments that create jobs and promote growth

States have a crucial role in being sure that the federal money gets out quickly and to everyone who is eligible. State employees should be shifted to state unemployment offices to handle the increased workload. State agencies responsible for small businesses should be geared up to help employers understand and apply for federal loans.

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Governors and state legislatures should use the press, social media and constituent communications to educate people about the new programs. They need to let self-employed people know that they are eligible for the first time. They must put the word out that unemployment is available even if people still have some income when wages or self-employed income take a big hit because of the crisis. They need to get the word out to the small business community. They should lean on every TV and radio outlet to run PSAs.

States should require all health insurers to cover all COVID-19 related care without any out-of-pocket costs. States that run their own ACA marketplaces should open enrollment to anyone who applies, as eleven states have already done. States in the federal marketplaces should pressure the federal government to do the same. All work requirements tied to eligibility for benefits should be ceased. States can also take immediate steps to protect consumers: stop evictions, foreclosures, debt-collection, car repossessions. Vigorously enforce laws against price-gouging. 

But states can’t stop there. We must use this crisis to transform the guiding logic of our economy from trickle-down to inclusive economics. Raising the minimum wage not just to $15 an hour, but to half of the median wage. A major investment in job-creating clean, renewable energy with policies that move states to 100 percent renewables. Making college and childcare truly affordable, limiting rent increases and building affordable housing. Being sure that every working person has paid sick days and family and medical leave. Boosting retirement income. States around the country have pioneered many of these measures; all should follow. 

Just as the Great Depression led to inclusive economic policies like Social Security, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage, laying the ground for decades of prosperity, the unfolding COVID Depression can bury neo-liberal economics once and for all and turn this terrible crisis into a new era of widespread prosperity, based on inclusive economics.

Richard Kirsch is the director of Our Story: The Hub for American Narratives and the author of "Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States." Follow him on Twitter@_RichardKirsch.