Culture & Society

An Easy Way to Help During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Spread the word: if you don’t need your stimulus payment, share it with someone who does

Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images

It appears Congress will shortly send the president a $2 trillion stimulus package that will supply “rebate payments” of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child to most Americans (the benefits start phasing out above certain income thresholds), regardless of their current employment status.

This is the right approach. It would be better to more finely target this assistance only to those who genuinely need it. But this is not feasible: even under the best circumstances, there is simply not enough time to retrieve and analyze the wealth of information required to inform such properly-targeted allocations. Furthermore, any apparatus whereby the federal government might attempt to make such discriminations would be subject to error and abuse. And, not to state the obvious, these are anything but the best of circumstances.

So a regime of near-universal cash payments is likely the most politically and administratively feasible option to assist families who have suddenly lost much of their income. But we as a society can aspire to more. Specifically, there is a role for citizens to play here, “partnering” with the federal government as “distribution assistants” of sorts. Less needy citizens, that is, might act as a sort of “delegated, distributed distribution network” for these payments. They can leverage their intimate familiarity with their own social networks as a means of (re)disbursing (at least portions of) their stimulus payments to those individuals and households known to them to be hit hardest by COVID-generated un(der)employment.

Let me illustrate the idea here using my own family as an example. My wife and I are both university professors, and—for the time-being, at least—our household income appears to be stable. The impending cash transfers basically constitute a windfall—an infusion of cashflow at precisely the time when our cash outlays (thanks to current social distancing requirements) are poised to diminish considerably. So under ordinary circumstances, a substantial portion these stimulus funds would have wound up getting “redistributed” to people like the servers and musicians who staff our favorite local eateries. (Since we live in Central Texas, with Austin just up the road, the presence of high-quality local musicians serenading diners with their own tunes is a ubiquitous and wonderful aspect of the “dining-out scene.”)

We know a number of servers and musicians whose incomes have been dramatically impacted by recent restaurant closures—a disruption of income unlikely to relent anytime soon.   Many of these friends and neighbors have advertised their plights on social media. Furthermore, we know exactly how to assist them, effortlessly, and in exactly the way they need: by electronically transferring funds to them through apps like PayPal and Venmo. We therefore plan to transfer a substantial portion of our rebate payment to those friends and neighbors whom we know to be most directly impacted by this recent wave of COVID-induced joblessness.

Because ideas need a high degree of “virality” to widely disseminate these days, I propose to “meme-ify” this notion by coining a hashtag – say “#SpreadTheLove,”–to refer to this act of voluntary re-distribution of crudely distributed stimulus funds .  If your income appears, for the time being, to be secure, please consider sharing a portion of your stimulus windfall with your friends and neighbors who are servers, bartenders, childcare workers, and others on the front lines of COVID employment precarity. And to those workers facing financial hardship: please advertise your situation with friends and family via social media! Let others know that, and what, you need.

As economists will recognize, this is something we have been doing all along. In ordinary circumstances, this is precisely what happens when, rather than “hoarding” all of our accumulated tradeable value in the form of savings (though clearly not all savings represent “hoarded” tradeable value), we go out and spend it at restaurants, pubs, movie theaters, vacation destinations, amusement parks, concerts, sporting events, and the like. In the process, we redistribute our income to others. And yes, many of the parties whose pockets we thereby line are what we might term “capitalists”: those who own the relevant “means of production” (the talent, the fame, the “brand,” the institutional and physical infrastructure) that make such public gatherings and spectacles possible—the actors, the rock- and pop-stars, the athletes, and the venue owners.

But we also ensure opportunities for others among us—the vast numbers of “non-capitalists” who staff and operate these venues—to create tradeable value (in the form of labor and services) and to reap social credit (in the form of monetary income). We don’t ordinarily think about these activities in this way because normally they are disguised as free exchanges for mutual benefit. We are therefore apt to overlook the role we play in effecting a given distribution of income; still, the self-interested nature of these ordinary transactions in ordinary times should not blind us to their fundamentally pro-social and redistributional nature.

However, extraordinary times call for extra-ordinary responses. Thus it behooves us—particularly insofar as we wish to ensure any semblance of a “return to normalcy” once all this is over—to support the income of the hard-working folks who make this “normalcy” possible.

We are being urged to wash our hands, to avoid touching our faces, and to keep our social distance, all in the name of flattening the curve and slowing COVID-19’s spread. And I join in asking citizens to do their part to stop the virus’s spread and the physical and psychological misery that has spread with it. But, in the name of stopping the economic misery that has accompanied this virus, I urge my readers also to help spread the funds.  So, spread the word and #SpreadTheLove!

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