Who wants government health care and unemployment programs to expand?

A study by Penn LDI fellows finds that people who felt most at risk from COVID-19 tend to favor expansions, regardless of their political attitudes.

For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic was both frightening and financially devastating. Along with unrelenting worries about getting severely ill or dying from the virus—or inadvertently infecting others—millions of people lost their jobs and struggled to pay their rent, mortgage, and credit card bills.

An “Unemployment benefits application checklist” form on a surface next to a pen.

The federal government responded by providing vaccines along with more affordable and accessible health care, increased food and housing assistance, money for families with children, funds for small businesses and hospitals, and higher unemployment payments.

How did individual experiences with COVID-19 affect Americans’ feelings about the federal safety net? Senior Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics fellow Alex Rees-Jones wanted to find out. “The ideal use of safety-net policy is to provide us protections against unpredictable personal or economic shocks that are outside of our control,” Rees-Jones says. “Workers losing their jobs during the initial COVID-19 shut-downs are as perfect an example of that as I’ve ever seen.”

In a study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Rees-Jones and colleagues showed that Americans who felt more severely impacted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic—either objectively or subjectively—felt more positive about expansions to government health care and unemployment insurance.

The influence of the COVID-19 safety net on policy preferences may have already affected American politics by “contributing to the finding that county-level infection and death counts predicted a loss of vote-share for incumbent President Trump in the 2020 presidential election.” These changes in policy preferences may continue to affect Americans long after the pandemic subsides.

After controlling for demographics and political ideology, they found that Americans who experienced a 1-standard-deviation increase in county-level impact from COVID-19 had an increased probability of supporting unemployment insurance expansion and government-provided health care expansion.

“An effect of this size was kind of surprising,” Rees-Jones says. “This suggests that experiences people had in the early days of COVID-19 are quantitatively quite influential in their attitudes toward safety nets, with swings in attitudes comparable to what people experienced around the great recession. Changes of this size can influence the types of policies we put in place going forward and could conceivably influence elections.”

This story is by Jen Fisher Wilson. Read more at Penn LDI.