During the pandemic, the social policy consensus in Washington shifted, but only temporarily it seems. Photo: Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

This year, the fall season is bringing more than just orange leaves and the proliferation of pumpkin-spiced goods. Along with all of that, we are hitting the end of what could be called the Covid safety net, an unexpected moment in time where the social policy consensus in Washington shifted dramatically and opened up a vision for a different governing philosophy, for a while.

We tend to think back on the pandemic as an unabashed calamity and a driver of lasting damage not only to our health — for the millions who died, permanently so — but our institutions and even our cohesion as a common public. We withdrew from public spaces, undid years of progress in educational attainment, maybe permanently stunted the social development of children, and made already churning currents of conspiracism, mistrust, and retreat from reality go into overdrive.

Rather than increase trust in medical research and particularly vaccines — arguably the most life-saving invention of the contemporary era — trust in the Covid vaccine remains middling at best and broader views on childhood vaccinations in general haven’t really changed. If we expected a sense of public unity and joint purpose as a result of facing down an acute international emergency, on that front we’ve failed pretty miserably.

Yet there has been at least one clear silver lining from the pandemic years: the scale and speed of the devastation quite sharply reversed decades of official retreat from large social safety net projects and ushered in the most significant expansion of progressive socioeconomic policies in the better part of a century. The stimulus checks were well-covered, of course, but the government also expanded unemployment benefits, blocked disenrollments from Medicaid, increased the child tax credit, paused student loan repayments, and otherwise moved to ensure a basic standard of stability for millions of people.

Paradoxically, as an aggressive respiratory pathogen ravaged the country, a lot of people felt they could suddenly breathe easier for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, as the relentless weight of financial uncertainty was unexpectedly lifted. We have plenty of evidence around the positive impacts of some of these policies. To take one example, research into the expansion of the child tax credit alone showed, as the Brookings Institution put it in a recent analysis, that “child poverty fell immediately and substantially,” with the impact being especially acute in states with low cost of living and high poverty rates. Nationwide, child poverty was cut just about in half over a single year. Then the program expired, and it surged higher than it had been before.

We touched on this before, as the Covid emergency was ending, and raised the question of whether this new era of social policy would be short-lived. Indeed, it seems to have turned out to be a brief experiment. As we’ve declared the pandemic over — notwithstanding current upticks in infection rates — the Covid safety net has been phased out with it. These policy reversals have hit different states at different speeds, with some more conservative ones moving faster to cut off aid, but now even the most liberal states are reaching the end of pandemic government largesse.

First on the chopping block were the real emergency-response policies like eviction moratoriums. Then, with the end of the emergency declaration, people lost protections against Medicaid disenrollments and states moved quickly to toss people off the rolls. According to a real-time tracker maintained by the health policy and research organization KFF, almost eight million people nationwide have already lost Medicaid coverage since this process began.

Now, we’re just about hitting the final nails in the coffin with the one-two punch of the resumption of student loan repayments and the potentially very significant expiration of $24 billion in expanded funding for childcare support, both having come with the start of this month. While there’s some debate about whether the impact will be as dire as 3.2 million children losing access to care — floated in an analysis by the Century Foundation — there’s no question that the aid drying up will shutter childcare centers and kick children off its rolls. That will, without a doubt, force parents to either scramble to find alternate options and probably pay more as competition dries up, or leave the workforce altogether, in coincidence with having to start paying student loans again.

Despite the enormity of this shift, there’s been relatively little discourse around it; most expirations are covered as standalone events, and the broad about-face on anti-poverty social funding and policy is shrugged off as the natural progression of our Covid recovery, if it’s discussed at all.

The macro economic impacts of all this aren’t going to be felt instantly; for a lot of people, obviously, the financial burden will start very quickly, but the indicators will lag. In a few months, as the unemployment rate is ticking up, spending is stagnating, and the surprisingly upbeat post-Covid economy hits a bump — and maybe careens off the road into recession — there will inevitably be public hand-wringing and pundits will back-and-forth about what happened and how we got here. As this gets underway, we should keep in mind that we found out (or rather, confirmed, as there are plenty of economic peer countries that have long known this) that certain safety net policies massively improved economic outcomes and yet chose to walk away from them.

This often gets framed as a purely ideological debate — a mere question of political leaning and values — when it really shouldn’t be. Policymakers and commentators can still contend that these expanded safety net policies were bad or undesirable for some reason, but whether or not they reduced poverty and stimulated economic activity, spending, and labor-force participation is hardly an opinion. The evidence is pretty clear on these fronts, and it might be increasingly difficult for them to justify the United States’ outlier status here given that the public has gotten a taste of what these policies look like in practice.

Let’s also tie this to another way that the U.S. is an outlier: life expectancy. The Washington Post is running an in-depth series on why people in the U.S. can generally expect to live less than people in economic peer countries, and finding that the most significant driver of the discrepancy is chronic disease. That in itself is downstream from a lot of factors, including a byzantine and ineffective healthcare system, but at their root, a lot of chronic ailments stem from poverty. Diabetes and heart disease are often caused by high-sugar and high-cholesterol diets consumed by people who can’t afford higher-quality food and don’t have time to make any; stress itself has been linked to chronic disease, and so on.

So, the end of Covid as a public emergency putatively signals the end of a massive health crisis, and yet it heralds a concerning health crisis of a different type, one driven by the expiration of our response to Covid itself. This one won’t be driven by an unthinking, uncaring virus, but by deliberate policy choices. It’s on us all to ask why those choices were made.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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