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Millions of Americans are now practically forced to stay in their homes, that is, if they are lucky enough to have homes. Some are without their usual meager income and unable to afford their bills. Many are limiting their trips to the store, not just to protect themselves, but also to protect others.

Many Americans have recently lost their jobs, their healthcare, and without a stay on evictions, would be on the verge of losing their housing. It remains to be seen how they will pay if the debt is merely pushed off to another date. 

One thing that all these Americans have in common is that they are in this predicament through no fault of their own. Not a single one of them created COVID-19— yet they all suffer from an event, or series of events, beyond their control.

Nor is their restricted freedom the fault of their government, which is taking appropriate action by restricting movement, just as it does by restricting drunk driving. Even libertarians agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the rare times where it is appropriate to restrict otherwise paramount freedoms. 

Those Americans who are currently falling into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic also have something in common with many other Americans who were in poverty before a global health emergency: they are there through no fault of their own.

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Certainly some people are in poverty as a result of their own poor decision making, and I don’t want to discuss whether or not we should include a person’s IQ in the relevant list of factors beyond their control. But even in the best of times, ignoring IQ and focusing solely on choices, there are some people in poverty through no fault of their own. 

So why does the government act to help those falling into poverty right now but not during more normal times? Why send “relief” payments to ordinary Americans during the COVID-19 lockdown but not when it is simply the result of run-of-the-mill injustice?

Because the number of people currently in or entering into poverty is a much larger portion of America than during more normal times. And because the government doesn’t like to see such a large portion of the population struggling so severely. The government prefers to have a much smaller percentage of its people desperate. Too many and there is a real risk of large scale unrest. 

The “relief” payments, though often lauded with pandering discussions of the economic hardships people are facing, are not being given out of concern for the people. Yes, the payments are intended to relieve the burden of poverty that many are facing, but only as a means to prevent the large scale unrest that the government fears. 

Now I am open to hearing arguments as to why our society should allow a percentage of its population to languish in poverty. Certainly it benefits the upper class to have desperate people willing, more-or-less, to do undesirable forms of labor for low wages. But I’m not so sure we want to make exploitation a lynch pin of our defense of poverty.

Personally, I would rather brag about how we don’t tolerate exploitation. I would rather brag that we are certain not a single citizen of our nation is pressured to take a bad job with unfair conditions or pay because we give every single person a basic income that is at or above the poverty line. 

And if you are worried that people are getting away with free money for doing nothing, remember that like now during this pandemic when people are refraining from going outside in order to help society, there are plenty of things that we do regularly for the same reason. For instance, recycling, and not littering.

Just think of a guaranteed basic income as payment for doing the unpaid things that society benefits from. From an individual’s perspective, littering and throwing away recyclables are excellent economic decisions since they save time, and time is money.

If we want the poorest people in the nation, people who are a few hours of missed work away from being homeless, to spend some of their time doing things like recycling, perhaps we should pay them for it.

So for those wondering why the American government is willing to help people with one particular cause of poverty beyond an individual’s control, but not to help with the usual ones, you have my answer. 


Darren McCormick is an amateur philosopher applying to masters programs in political science. When not giving kids chess lessons, he examines local practices and governance through a lens of political theory.

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