How We Stopped Villainizing the Social Safety Net

In these topsy-turvy times of rapid transformation in response to Covid-19, it has become apparent that a number of once-unimaginable policy solutions are no longer crazy ideas. In a newfound empathy and solidarity for front-line workers like grocery store clerks, drivers delivering packages, and sanitation workers still picking up the trash, you can see a potentially re-shaped America on the horizon.

It turns out that we can strengthen the social safety net — though it unfortunately took a pandemic to create the widespread support to do so. Political leaders — starting local and rapidly scaling up to their state and federal counterparts — have been quick to support and institute a wide range of emergency support measures to help people right now.

Many ideas once anathema to national political leaders are now viable. Suddenly even federal lawmakers who have long resisted these policy ideas are embracing paid sick leave, employment protections for contract workers, and even direct cash payments to people as solutions.

In a recent poll commissioned by the National League of Cities and  conducted by Morning Consult, 85% of Americans supported mandating employers to provide emergency paid sick leave in response to the spread of coronavirus. These types of numbers reflect a growing group of Americans realizing — at least in the short term — that we are all in this together. Paid sick leave was popular even in earlier opinion polls when there wasn’t any national action, but the level of support has increased dramatically. Even taxes, the American third rail in politics, are not off the table. Fully 80% of Americans would support a tax hike — with broad bipartisan support — to control the spread of the virus and support those most affected by Covid-19.

Cities have been passing paid sick leave policies for years now, seeking to expand the social safety net wherever they can. Unfortunately in nearly half the country, states have blocked these laws through preemption. As of April 1, many more workers nationally have protection, now that federal paid leave protections were instituted for some workers nationwide. This law was passed specifically to respond to Covid-19 and only applies through the end of 2020. But the conditions of workers that led to its passage highlight the inadequacy of our current national system and the systemic inequalities that gig and service-industry workers face every day.

We should follow the lead of cities and the states that have sought to promote public health through paid sick leave policies and make this temporary federal policy permanent. Not only is this good for people, but it’s good for business productivity and economic output. Frankly, we should all be a little embarrassed that America is one of only 14 countries in the world that did not have a paid sick leave policy. Let that sit for a minute: Out of 193 countries in the world, 179 have sick leave — and we do not. Conservative estimates, in normal times, show that 20 million Americans go to work sick in a given year. We can and must do better.

For too long, gig-economy workers delivering your groceries from Instacart, your ride from Uber, and every last package imaginable from Amazon have been — and continue to be — treated differently. Now, with these workers providing lifelines to people sheltering in place, a broader swath of Americans see that their jobs are essential to our modern way of life.  

The stimulus package delivers a $600 across-the-board increase in unemployment insurance per week for up to four months to all workers regardless of whether they are permanent or contract workers. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was created specifically to help these workers, even if traditionally they wouldn’t be covered in states (where unemployment insurance is issued).

Finally, the idea of direct cash payments from the federal government was an unpopular policy among many — and certainly to a significant majority of federal politicians — until it wasn’t. Andrew Yang was a lone voice at the national level making the case for a freedom dividend as he ran for president. There has been quite a bit of research and conversation around ways that a basic income or other expanded direct cash payments could be instituted. In fact, a groundswell of experimentation in cities like Stockton, California, where a successful basic income pilot has already been instituted, and an earlier privately funded experiment in Oakland, have shown the efficacy of these policies. Stories from Stockton thus far suggest that people receiving direct cash payments spend it on necessities like food, utilities, and clothing — exactly what so many Americans need help with now and in the coming months.

But it seemed no more than a glint in Yang’s eyes that we would see such a thing happen at the national level. Now we’ve got Trump bucks on the way in the form of a direct cash payment of $1,200 to all taxpayers making less than $75,000 plus an additional $500 per child. With talks of a fourth stimulus package and more on the way, it is not inconceivable that this is only the first direct cash payment from the federal government.       

These measures have been passed to respond to the unprecedented nature of Covid-19. But they also show that what sometimes seems improbable can suddenly become quite mainstream. As many city leaders who have been championing policies like paid sick leave and expanded worker protections will attest, not only are these programs incredibly popular with constituents, but they can and do transform lives.

City leaders have been moving at a rapid pace since the beginning of this pandemic to develop policies to help people now. The National League of Cities, where I serve as director of the Center for City Solutions, is tracking this rapidly shifting landscape across the U.S. — with more than 600 policies already recorded — in our new NLC-Bloomberg COVID-19 Local Action Tracker. (Disclosure: The tracker is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of CityLab parent Bloomberg LP.) The goal here is to make sure that cities can learn from one another and continue to push good ideas from the ground up.

Mayors are on the front lines and making hard decisions on a daily basis right now, and we should continue to follow their lead to build a better society on the other side of this crisis. Paid leave, worker protections, and even direct cash payments should become the norm rather than the exception to build a country that works for all — and is prepared for whatever may come next.

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