America Must Pay People to Stay Home

Madeline Polkinghorn

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has surpassed early, worst-case predictions by unspeakable margins. Each day, a newly grim headline enters the public consciousness and instills in me a sense of fear that I find hard to explain. 

In nine states, at least 1 in 1000 residents have died of COVID-19. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moratorium on eviction expires by the end of the year as expected, at least 5.8 million American adults claim they are likely to face eviction or foreclosure; almost 18 million report that they are behind on rent or mortgage payments. In the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, 12 million Americans may lose unemployment aid if Congress cannot come to a compromise on a stimulus package. 

I have found myself, as I have discussed in The Bates Student before, frequently confounded and plainly abhorred by the apparent personal apathy others seem to have with regard to their behavior during the pandemic. The notion that there are individuals dying painful deaths alone in hospitals without their loved ones while others skirt mask mandates; go to bars, restaurants, and parties; and entirely eschew social distancing enrages me at the deepest moral level. 

But at this juncture of the pandemic, it is largely unproductive to wax on about these apparent moral failures, and we must instead focus on how they may be prevented. At a time of unprecedented economic crisis, it appears there is only one solution that may be both feasible and effective for controlling the spread of disease before the widespread distribution of an approved vaccine: the U.S. must pay people to stay home. 

I am certainly not the first or most important person to express this idea. On Nov. 19, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that “to get the virus under control, we need to pay people to stay home, ” which received over 70,000 retweets and 521,000 likes.  Former 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who ran on a platform of universal basic income, argued on CNN that we should not only pay Americans to stay home, but we should pay them to get the vaccine. An editorial in The Washington Post adroitly argued “physical distancing won’t work unless livelihoods are secure while we slow the spread of COVID-19.”

It is patently absurd that we expect Americans to stay home and distance themselves from others without compensating them for the revenue they would lose for doing so. The unfortunate reality of our present moment is that staying home is a luxury many simply cannot afford, forcing millions to go to work every day and unwittingly transmit the virus, because our government refuses to provide its citizens with the means to remain inside away from the virus. 

Mandates from governors, members of Congress, and even the president commanding that people stay home without providing the material conditions possible for them to do so ring hollow and deeply hypocritical, only reinforcing hostility towards public health and distancing measures. 

As others have pointed out, the United States currently possesses a $740,000,000,000 military budget – amounting to roughly the size of the seven next highest spending global military budgets combined – but cannot provide its people with the incentive and necessary basic funding to stay inside during a plague. 

As Dr. Michael Osterholm –  health advisor to President-elect Joe Biden – stated in an interview, economic success and COVID-19 prevention efforts have been placed in direct opposition to one another. The reason why many are so adversarial to life-saving public health measures like lockdowns and mandatory quarantines is because the federal government has done nothing to recoup the economic losses that they necessarily incur. 

If we provided every single American with a basic, liveable wage – not unlike Yang’s proposed freedom dividend that would provide Americans with an unconditional $1000 per month – to stay safely home during the pandemic, we would not only prevent incalculable human suffering and loss by reducing the transmission of the disease but also benefit the federal economy in the long run by ending the pandemic sooner.

At the end of the day, the material conditions of citizens are likely to influence their decisions more than anything else. We cannot expect Americans to fight a pandemic on their own while the federal government allows them to descend into unemployment, bankruptcy, and even homelessness. It serves in the best interest, quite literally, of the entire world to reduce infections in the United States by financially enabling Americans to stay home.