The US Welfare State Expanded During the Pandemic. On Biden’s Watch, It’s Been Rolled Back.

Pundits and liberal strategists alike keep scratching their heads as to why Joe Biden’s economic approval ratings are so low. But the sweeping rollback of pandemic-era social programs is a glaringly obvious culprit.

Food bank clients receive groceries inside the American Red Cross Food Pantry in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on April 26, 2023. (Kayana Szymczak / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

So far, the reigning instinct among Democrats campaigning to reelect Joe Biden next year has been to underscore the administration’s economic success. And, while the likes of White House press releases and tweets from administration officials aren’t without their fair share of spin, their underlying premise isn’t entirely untrue. Seen in relation to key macroeconomic indicators like growth (projected to be 1.8 percent this year and possibly much higher) and unemployment (just 3.8 percent in August), the general outlook is in many ways very positive.

The strategy, however, doesn’t seem to be working. According to new CNN polling, Biden currently trails every major candidate for the Republican presidential nomination except Vivek Ramaswamy, including likely nominee Donald Trump. Biden’s economic numbers are also notably poor. Gallup’s latest survey, conducted last month, suggests that a sizable majority of Americans (63 percent) disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, while a much lesser share (37 percent) view it favorably. As journalist Jeff Spross points out, Trump’s approval rating was nearly twice as high when the economy posted similar numbers.

The obvious dissonance between these two sets of figures has given rise to a whole meta-discourse about why more Americans aren’t effusively sharing macroeconomic figures at the watercooler and gifting Biden with higher approval ratings. A few pundits, in fact, have more or less taken to scolding voters for being insufficiently grateful. “You don’t want to say that Americans are stupid,” wrote Paul Krugman in May, “[but there are] huge gaps between what people say about the economy and both what the data says and what they say about their own experience.” “Overall, the U.S. economy continues to surge forward despite economists’ dire predictions,” remarked MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough in July, citing among other things America’s GDP growth. “And despite the blather that cable-news hosts spit at you daily, your country is doing pretty damn well.”

While a variety of factors have doubtless shaped the way voters view Biden, there is a glaringly obvious explanation for negative perceptions about the economy that has nothing to do with mass irrationality or ingratitude.

Spurred by the pandemic, Congress erected a vast superstructure of social supports, cash transfers, and other protections that, taken together, amounted to something more or less unprecedented, resembling a European welfare state. The effect of these measures was visible and dramatic. Thanks to direct relief payments and significant boosts to food aid programs, millions were freed from financial insecurity and millions more were no longer going hungry. After Biden took office in January 2021, the new Democratic Congress passed the sweeping, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which supplemented existing relief with $1,400 checks paid out to over 120 million households; an enhanced version of the Child Tax Credit; and a fresh round of unemployment benefits.

As both Stephen Semler and Nick French have detailed in recent articles, the subsequent dismantling of these supports and many others that were introduced has been breathtaking to behold. Programs were variously canceled or allowed to expire. Millions have been kicked off Medicaid, with millions more likely to lose it by next spring. What food aid measures remain in place face a tough battle in Congress and may not survive, even though dependence on them is increasing. Homelessness has spiked by nearly 40 percent in major cities over the past year, thanks in part to the end of eviction moratoriums. On top of it all, some forty-four million Americans will soon have to resume payments for their student loans. And this is far from an exhaustive list.

The upshot is that the Biden White House has presided over what may be the largest rollback of social supports and welfare protections in modern US history — a retrenchment that has played out with incredible speed, and all as food and other essential consumer goods grew increasingly expensive. By failing to make key emergency measures permanent, the Democratic leadership not only let a good crisis go to waste, but also allowed immense suffering to fester beneath the country’s relatively rosy macroeconomic indicators.

There may, of course, be other factors contributing to Biden’s unpopularity and the negative perception a majority of voters now have of his economic management. But the rapid clawing back of popular and desperately needed cash payments and social supports during a cost -of-living crisis offers a more convincing — and much less patronizing — explanation than millions of ordinary Americans simply not knowing what’s good for them.