A few weeks ago, my father, a farmer in Southern California, stopped picking mid-harvest because of disruptions in produce distribution lines due to the coronavirus pandemic. My sister, concerned about families across the country that were struggling to feed their children, personally handpicked and boxed 1,600 pounds of the unpicked produce for a local food bank.
While I was proud of my sister’s herculean efforts, one rancher alone can’t address a crisis of this magnitude. Thankfully, the state of California stepped in to expand the Farm to Family program, an initiative that connects farmers with food banks.
This is an example of government at its best — mobilizing resources and people power to save lives, meet basic human needs, and address the inequities we’re seeing in our communities. But at a moment when state and local governments are stepping up to protect our health and safety, they’re also staring down enormous budget deficits — and not everyone wants our state and local governments to succeed.
At the end of April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' Capito grills EPA nominee on '#ResistCapitalism' tweet Hassan launches first ad of reelection bid focusing on veterans' issues MORE (R-Ky.) said states and cities whose budgets have been decimated by COVID-19 should be allowed to go bankrupt. And since then, Congress hasn’t even debated the idea of funding cities and states that are already being forced to lay off thousands of workers.
Bankruptcy or massive budget cuts would undercut our first responders, teachers, sanitation crews, and public health workforce — the very people who have been on the frontlines of our response to COVID-19. And it would decimate our parks and recreation areas, libraries, housing and food assistance programs, clean-air monitoring, and much more — all things that support health, safety, and wellbeing in our communities.
With bankruptcy already on the table, calls for privatization can’t be far behind. U.S. taxpayers are propping up airlines and the hotel industry, even as the U.S. Postal Service is being left to wither and die. As families adjust to home-schooling, how long will it take for someone to call for large-scale vouchers to private online learning institutions, thus draining more resources from our public schools? And when locales run out of money and their biggest assets are their land, how do we make sure our parks and open spaces don’t get auctioned off to the highest bidder?
Take away public agencies and public funds and ideas like connecting farmers with people who are hungry are simply non-starters. These are community-centered efforts, not profit-making enterprises, because they focus on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us. Corporations don’t have the mandate to support our health — they have a mandate to increase the wealth of their shareholders. Time and time again, we’ve seen powerful industries — like the tobacco industry, firearm manufacturers, oil and gas companies, and alcohol distributors — put profits over our health.
Privatization can also exacerbate inequities. The privatization of prisons and immigrant detention centers has gone hand in hand with increased health and safety risks for people in detention tied to cost-cutting on staff training, medical care, and quality food, not to mention corporate support for public policies that keep prisons and immigration detention centers at maximum capacity. As is so often the case, the people who shoulder the real costs of privatization are people who are poor and people of color.
Privatizing public services and resources also means giving up accountability in the process and shrinking the sphere for public action. While government delivery of services is far from perfect, at least we can hold our government accountable when it falls short. We have the right to demand better. When public services are privatized, we don’t even have the right to know.
What we’ve learned the hard way during this pandemic is that there are some things that only government is able or willing to do — and that holds true during less extraordinary times as well. Though the story of COVID-19 is still unfolding, I’m convinced that right now we are at a fork in the road, with important choices to make — and human lives hanging in the balance. That’s why we need to speak out now for the role that good government — and only good government — can fulfill.
Instead of going down the path of bankruptcy and privatization, we can invest in the health of our communities. To encourage creative solutions to the new problems the pandemic has created — and to longstanding problems the pandemic has exacerbated — we need to fund our state and local governments.
Rachel A. Davis is the executive director of Prevention Institute, a public health nonprofit with offices in Oakland, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, DC.