Direct Provision of Services is More Popular than Subsidies, Part Infinity
The Biden Administration has, for the first time in a long time, done something about the COVID epidemic that’s broadly popular:
The White House’s long-awaited website for ordering free Covid-19 rapid tests is finally live. The new page, covidtests.gov, arrives amid a shortage of rapid tests and a surge in Covid-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant. While this new program isn’t flawless, flooding the country with easily accessible rapid tests could be a powerful tool to fight the pandemic.
Covidtests.gov is part of the White House’s plan to buy and distribute 1 billion rapid tests over the coming months. The end goal of the new testing initiative is to make it easier for people to find out whether they have Covid-19, and if necessary, isolate to curb the spread of the virus. Technically, covidtests.gov wasn’t supposed to launch until January 19, but the government released a “beta phase” version of the site ahead of that deadline, allowing many people to order tests early. Within a few hours of launch, the beta version became the most popular government website by a long shot.source
Across social media, you can find people saying the same thing: how (contrary to past experience with government IT project launches in recent decades) quick and easy it was to order the tests. You go to covidtests.gov, enter your mailing address (make sure to put your apartment number in both lines of the address if you live in an apartment building), click a button, and you’re done. I did it this morning and I would be very much surprised if the whole process took longer than 30 seconds.
This rollout, combined with the news that the Federal government is planning to distribute free N95 masks to health centers and pharmacies, is hopefully a sign that the Biden Administration has decided to move beyond initial plans for complicated private-sector subsidies to handle distribution of COVID materials.
As the left of the party have been arguing, this is what we should have been doing since Day 1. Direct provision of goods and services are straightforward ways for the government to help people and to be seen to help people. People need help, and they like getting that help in a way that involves as few administrative barriers as possible, and the more directly government can help them in that way, the more likely they are to associate that help with the government that provided it. Despite what certain technocratic circles in the broader coalition might prefer, Democratic public policy ought to accomodate this preference as much as possible.