Forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and said the best thing that the government could do to help families was to get out of the way of American business and let the markets work their magic.

“Government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said in 1981. “Government is the problem.”

Last week, Reagan’s latest successor stood inside the same Capitol, and offered a very different analysis.

President Biden described his plans to help families by creating jobs and subsidizing childcare, health care and education, paid for with tax increases on the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

“My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” Biden told a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out.”

Last week, Biden introduced his American Families Plan, price tag $1.8 trillion,  which followed the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, an eight-year infrastructure building program proposed  last month, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the final installment in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, which became law in March.

Combined, they would represent the biggest commitment to government action since World War II. This time, the enemy is economic inequality, which leaves too many people behind in the best of times and hits the most vulnerable the hardest when there’s a crisis. Republicans argue that most of this proposed spending is unnecessary because the economy is already growing at a rapid rate. But like the virus itself, Biden argues, the recovery will only add to inequality unless the government intervenes.

Is government the problem, or does government exist to solve problems, as Biden is saying now? A growing body of evidence says that Biden is right.

The problem of hunger is just one example. When the pandemic struck, millions of newly unemployed workers lined up outside food banks because they didn’t have enough to eat. Families with children were hit especially hard.

This continued through the end of 2020. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, about 18 percent of families did not have enough to eat in late December. That dropped to 14.6 percent in late February and again to 11.2 percent by the end of March. What changed?

Congress passed two COVID relief bills that sent direct cash payments to most American families, including those who have been struggling to feed themselves. The first, a bipartisan bill that passed in December, sent $600 checks to eligible adults, and the second, passed without any Republican votes, distributed $1,400 checks.

This short-term aid made a big difference in millions of lives.

The same effect was observed in another study. Economists working for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia looked at the impact of eviction moratoriums that were implemented by state and local governments during the pandemic. Since the eviction bans were not imposed universally, the researchers could see how rent relief affected families.

They found was that when people were relieved of paying rent, they spent more money on food. This was especially true of rent-burdened households – those that spend more than half of their income on housing. They also found that families who received the assistance were less likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety than those who did not.

We know what the long-term effects on children that comes from growing up in households where there isn’t enough to eat; where they don’t know where they will live next month; where their parents are anxious or depressed. Imagine the long-term benefits of millions more children growing up in secure homes.

Forty years ago we were told that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But that didn’t happen. Over the decades, some have achieved fabulous wealth, but most people are struggling to enter or stay in the middle class.

Even during the historic, decade-long economic expansion that ended last year, it was clear that prosperity was not reaching everyone. The stock market broke records and unemployment was low, but half a million people were homeless and 10 percent of the population remained stuck in poverty, including 11 million children, 35,000 who live in Maine.

In 2021, government action cut the rate of food-insecure families by 40 percent in just a few months. Why stop there? The number of hungry children could be zero.

What we should have learned over the last four months is that while government may not always be the solution to all our problems, in some cases it is. And when the problems are so big, it’s the only solution.


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