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This for That: Trading Vaccinations for Stimulus Checks

photograph of gloved hand offering syringe and vaccine vial

Lawmakers are getting creative in breaking partisan deadlock over a long-overdue third coronavirus relief bill. After a months-long standoff, Congress remains at an impasse. While Democrats are advocating for a $900 billion starting point that includes state and local government funding, the Republican leadership has indicated they want something around $500 billion with a liability shield to insulate employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits that might be brought by employers over unsafe workplaces.

Part of this negotiation concerns whether to include another round of stimulus checks like those that went out in the spring. Despite popular appeal on both sides of the aisle, those opposed to direct payments stress the cost of such a policy and the need to limit government spending. They also argue that aid efforts should be more narrowly focused on providing relief for those who are most deserving (i.e., the unemployed who are actively seeking work).

In an attempt to appease these critics, former Maryland Representative John Delaney recently suggested providing $1,500 stimulus checks to individuals in exchange for them getting immunized. Its appeal to holdouts is fairly straightforward: rather than a cash giveaway with limited impact and so-so odds of success, this policy is more obviously goal-oriented. It’s a specific answer to a particular problem: only 60% of Americans say they would be willing to get vaccinated, but we need to at least 75% of the population to be immunized to start approaching herd immunity. In order to close that gap, “we have to create […] an incentive for people to really accelerate their thinking about taking the vaccine,” Delaney argues. By making stimulus payments contingent on showing proof of immunization, we can expect a great many more Americans to get a vaccine who might otherwise resist.

So is Delaney’s proposal just good policy or might it be objectionably coercive? Putting money in people’s pockets while stopping the spread of COVID-19 certainly has the potential to create a lot of good. And it does so without getting into sticky conversations about public health and bodily autonomy; we can leave all that anti-vaxx baggage at the door. As Delaney explains,

“If you’re still afraid of the vaccine and don’t want to take it, that’s your right. You won’t participate in this program. But guess what? You’re going to benefit anyhow, because we’ll get the country to herd immunity faster, which benefits you. So I think everyone wins.”

Delaney emphasizes that his plan would not force anyone to get vaccinated, it simply encourages socially responsible behavior by providing financial incentive. And “It’s not like we don’t pull levers to get people vaccinated,” Delaney argues. “We do that now.” There are already similar measures in the U.S. to encourage vaccinations like MMR immunization for children attending public school.

But school vaccinations look a bit different than withholding financial aid in a pandemic in order to effect compliance. For one, there is a distinct difference in exit options. Parents can avoid vaccinating their children by pursuing medical, religious, or philosophical exemptions relatively easily (as Kenneth Boyd has previously discussed here). But Delaney’s proposal doesn’t intend to make similar space. Clearly, one could choose to forgo government assistance, but the situation has the most vulnerable among us over a barrel: barter your beliefs or risk (more) financial insolvency. (And given the mild to moderate side effects from the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine recently reported in the severely allergic, at least some (albeit few) of those beliefs surely qualify as legitimate.) This policy, then, threatens to severely undermine individual autonomy. With unemployment insurance benefits set to run out and the federal moratorium on eviction expiring, a $1,500 stimulus check might not save the day, but it’s not the sort of thing many could afford to turn down either.

Apart from these worries, though, there is concern that Delaney’s proposal fails to account for the reasons supporting relief in the first place. Political justifications for government’s obligation in this regard come in various flavors, but the two featuring most prominently at the moment involve causation — as lockdown orders have interfered with citizens’ ability to pursue their livelihoods they are due some financial consideration — or economic preservation — to lessen the economic downturn we will all experience (to greater and lesser extents), it behooves us to ensure that bills can be paid, goods can be bought, money moves through the economy and isn’t hid under mattresses, and that the workforce can be maintained and summoned back at a moment’s notice. At bottom, both these accounts rest on an understanding that the government is duty-bound to provide assistance to citizens, vaccinated or not, because our fortunes are inextricably linked. And while these two justifications might not necessitate that all citizens be treated alike, they also can’t justify differential treatment according to immunization status.

In the end, these two projects are simply too far apart. As Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, sums up, “It’s always nice to be able to kill two birds with one stone, but in this case I think the two birds are flying off in different directions.” Those most in need of direct payments are the same people most likely to abstain from vaccination, and those more likely to get vaccinated are the same ones less likely to put that stimulus check back into the economy. We’re trying to solve two collective action problems — herd immunity and economic recovery — by tying them together, but they may be less connected than they might first appear.

But let me not overstate the case. This is not an argument against the use of financial incentives or psychological nudges in general. It isn’t even an argument against incentivizing people to get vaccinated. I’ve merely tried to offer an explanation for why Delaney’s particular proposal can’t be considered a solution to Congress’s current problem. There are reasons regarding fairness, justice, and autonomy that speak against holding direct relief payments contingent upon vaccination and for keeping the issues of economic stimulus and immunization separate.

Responding to Crisis: Individuals versus Income

photograph of diverse crowd waiting in line

A $2 trillion dollar COVID-19 bailout package has been hotly contested in Washington as rent checks and bills become due. U.S. President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on Friday the 27th of March, a bill was passed that includes a means-tested payment to individuals with a tax-identification number. Because the bill is means-tested, folks who have more financial burdens are set to receive more money. An individual making more money over the course of a year may not receive anything. Individuals who earned less than $75,000 will receive $1,200, or couples who earned less that 150,000 will receive $24,000. For those with children, they will receive $500 per child. (There seems to be a sliding scale, where you receive less funds the more you make, up to 99,000 for an individual and 198,000 as a couple.)

In some countries, workers will be paid portions of their pay through the COVID-19 crisis. Norway will pay 90% of their worker’s wages. The UK will pay 80% of the wages of workers kept on payrolls during the COVID-19 crisis to incentivize businesses not to lay them off, up to around the median income. The justification behind such policies is to balance the cost of keeping people employed against a huge run on unemployment benefits and the impact of widespread unemployment on the economy long-term. Denmark has a similar strategy.

Means-tested policies indicate that the benefit will differ depending on the financial means of an individual or family unit. And there are good reasons for some social programs to be means-tested. The government has limited funds and therefore sending our resources to those who will most benefit from them, or who are most in need of them, can seem like a good principle for allocation. If we have an accurate view of the person’s financial means, then targeting those without sufficient means to receive more resources can be justified.

Moral questions are difficult with government benefits in principle. There are some people who would benefit most with more money, which could lead us to a forward-looking approach (so, with $500 more dollars, could make a HUGE difference to their lives). There are those that NEED $500 more than that first group, so we could be present-centered. Or, we could look at WHY people are in the state that they are in and try to fix injustices done by providing a monetary sum.

There are (at least) two concerns that arise with means-tested benefits. First, social concerns about capturing people’s true needs through the tests for financial resources. Whether the resources in question (access to goods do not all amount to funds) that a particular policy is trying to target tracks the means being measured (typically – financial funds). Justice and accessibility issues are the main concerns here, and are difficult for a government benefit system to directly address. Typically, what is needed are more diverse programs that can support communities and recognize the many facets and goods of a flourishing life, as well as the structural barriers that create difficulties in access to these social and economic goods.

Second, if we determine that money is the best way (quickest, or most effective given the blunt instrument government benefits can be), then there are real epistemic concerns with determining where money should go in order to do good. From a governmental perspective, we don’t see particulars of people’s cases with any degree of detail. Say we had the idea to target those affected by our current crisis with funds. For gig workers, their economic status is precarious, but cannot be summarized in terms of salary or unemployment status. For those who don’t lose their job with the right status (being laid off instead of given a 0-hour shift indefinitely), they don’t even qualify for unemployment benefits, and so an aid package targeting those who are benefiting from a program overburdened by our current crisis will not target them. We also currently have workers who are doing a great deal more work than they are paid to do, and taking on an overrepresented risk to their health and safety during a time of great emergency. We don’t have a system to capture these individuals, because their tasks are spread among many different systems of our workforce.

This one-time payment was determined based on minimum wage for a month. Many say it is woefully inadequate. Senator Stabenow from Michigan has said, “One-time payments are not what people need. What people need is a paycheck. They need ongoing income until this is done. That’s what they need.” Others take moral issue with who gets to benefit.

A congressman from Arizona, Rep. Andy Biggs, objected to a COVID-19 stimulus package because it allowed funds to go to child support for families that weren’t straight. He claimed that government funds going to people that didn’t match his understanding of a familial unit “redefined family.” The way money is allocated in the bill depends on having the responsibility for children, because monthly costs for households with children are, obviously, higher, than those without. This does not specify the financial responsibility for children in the way that Representative Biggs would like, including children that are related biologically, adopted, foster children, stepchildren, and “a child of a domestic partner.” Domestic partners can be of any gender, and this, to Rep. Biggs, means that the bill defines family to include partners raising children of any gender. To have the federal government recognize such a set of relationships is sufficient to deny the entirety of the provisions of the bill.

Most take Representative Biggs to be ridiculous and bigoted, but with bigotry on the rise in the face of COVID-19 in the form of hate crimes against Asian Americans, and the higher susceptibility of the LGBT+ population to COVID-19, the least we can do is match our global peers in supporting the people that make up the economy, or there will be no economy to return to.

Reimagining the Government Safety Net

This year will mark a variety of experiments in alternatives to standards models of welfare in the West.

Traditionally, revenue collected from taxes is devoted to programs that provide particular services to citizens in need of assistance. Some form of credits or relief from paying for groceries, rent, school tuition, and medical assistance are standard areas of government aid.

Continue reading “Reimagining the Government Safety Net”