My father, a farmer, called me a few weeks ago to share that he had just stopped picking mid-harvest because of disruptions in produce distribution lines due to the coronavirus pandemic. I felt concerned for my family, for other farmers, and for families across the country that were struggling to feed their children. In the meantime, my sister, the ranch manager, spent days personally handpicking and boxing 1,600 pounds of the unpicked produce and got it to a local food bank.
I was proud of my sister’s herculean efforts, but one rancher can’t address a crisis of this scale. That’s why I was so happy when Governor Newsom announced an expansion of California’s Farm to Family program, an initiative to connect farmers with food banks.
This is government at its best: addressing a complex and real need for the people. In the midst of a pandemic outbreak and economic collapse, we need good government now more than ever to mobilize resources and people power to save lives and address inequities plaguing 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 McConnell said that he would oppose emergency funding for states and cities whose budgets have been decimated by COVID-19, saying he’d “certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route.” Surprising as his statement was, it’s completely consistent with past statements and policy proposals that belittle the role government can and should play in supporting our health, safety and wellbeing.
Bankruptcy would drain resources and energy our state and local leaders need to address COVID-19 and 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. Public-sector layoffs are already being announced from coast to coast. And bankruptcy 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 its dedicated federal workers put their lives on the line to bring us our mail. 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?
We’ve spent the last two decades analyzing public health challenges and victories. One thing we know is this: corporations don’t have a mandate to support our health, safety, and wellbeing—they have a responsibility to their shareholders’ pocketbooks. Time and time again, we’ve seen powerful industries—like the tobacco industry, firearm manufacturers, oil and gas companies, alcohol distributors—put profits over our health.
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.
Privatization also usually exacerbates 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.
And privatizing public services and resources 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.
Though the story of COVID-19 is still unfolding, we’re 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.
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.
Across the country, government leaders have demonstrated how responsive and inclusive governance can save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19. State and local governments have passed policy measures that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago and started to address problems that seemed insurmountable—like passing eviction moratoriums to help families living on the edge to stay in their homes and converting empty hotels and convention centers to house the homeless.
That’s because government can put long-term health and equity above short-term profits. And when they don’t, we, as voters and activists, can hold government leaders accountable for health inequities and racial injustices—thus moving us toward a more just and equitable future.
We need good government, government that listens to community members and meets their needs with the urgency and creativity they deserve, now more than we ever have in many of our lifetimes. Bankruptcy is not an option when health, safety, and wellbeing are at stake. Neither is auctioning off our public goods and services to the highest bidder.