The Power of Will – and Its Limits

Moments of crisis force a reexamination of priorities that has the power to open new possibilities. What had seemed a bad idea or not worth the effort in a moment of tranquility can become essential. Crises, such as the Great Depression on World War II, generate a will that had not existed and, when channeled toward common goals, that will can make the impossible possible.

As detailed in this volume, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a crisis that has amplified disparities that have long plagued our society. In health and schools, housing and the workforce, the pandemic further exposed the vulnerabilities keeping so many from reaching their potential or even from finding basic stability. These gaps have existed for years and have been tolerated as merely a cost of a system that delivered national prosperity, however unevenly spread. There had been no will to comprehensively address housing and employment instability, gaps in the infrastructure of technology or the delivery of health care. The pandemic made addressing some of these longstanding problems more imperative.

All of a sudden, an evicted family that needed to search for new housing in the midst of the pandemic became a potential spreader of the virus. In a wrecked and uncertain economy, a worker who’d lost their job faced the possibility of months without any income, with impacts felt within the most vulnerable families and in the economy at large. What to do about children who would be attending school virtually, but whose homes did not have reliable access to the internet? Before the pandemic, such lack of connectivity might have seemed merely an inconvenience, a barrier to effective communication or robust research; in the midst of the pandemic, it became a barrier to participating in school at all (Camera, 2020).

In response, many discovered a new will to strengthen the safety net for the most vulnerable in our midst. Policies that had seemed out of reach entered the realm of the possible due to the pandemic. Most notably, the federal government instituted a widespread moratorium on evictions (Ramsey Mason, 2020) and increased financial assistance to the unemployed (Alcala Kovalski & Sheiner, 2020). Other anti-poverty measures that had been fringe ideas, such as direct payments to individuals, families, and businesses (Edmonson, 2020) and forbearance of student loans (Rowan, 2021), became realities. Local governments, too, addressed needs exposed by the pandemic. Here in Memphis, the Shelby County government created relief funds for various categories of affected workers (Dries, 2021) and the Shelby County Schools worked to ensure wi-fi connectivity to students in need (Holguin, 2020). Having redefined the possible in the throes of the pandemic, policymakers have begun to consider how some of these measures can survive into the post-pandemic world, tightening the social safety net.

The power of more focused will was also evident in the response to the murder of George Floyd. The vulnerability of African Americans in encounters with law enforcement was certainly not a new or unknown phenomenon. However, activists protesting the dehumanizing, even lethal, treatment were often stymied in efforts to build support to enact more effective policies to reduce the number of such encounters and increase accountability when they did occur. Floyd’s murder, along with contemporaneous killings of others, such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, decreased the tolerance for inaction. Symbolically, there was a move from a world in which Colin Kaepernick was vilified for a solitary and silent protest during the national anthem in 2016 to a world in whicH entire sports leagues were supporting players in declaring Black Lives Matter in 2020. On a policy level, ideas for criminal justice reform that had been moving glacially or had stalled, such as eliminating chokeholds (Kindy et al., 2020), reexamining immunity for police officers (Gipson, 2021), and reconsideration of police involvement in non-violent circumstances (Thompson, 2020), found more favorable reception within many levels of government.

The reforms made possible in the pandemic or in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were neither perfect nor complete, but they revealed a shift in the universe of possible policy change to address the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Introduced in a moment of crisis, they have revealed that the failure to consider such policies in more stable moments is due to a lack of collective will rather than to some inherent impossibility. The pandemic has revealed a new category of what is possible, if only we can muster the will to pursue it.

However, the pandemic has also revealed challenges to doing so. After all, will can be fleeting. As the focus of crisis dissolves, addressing the vulnerabilities it revealed can seem less imperative. Further, new enthusiasm for once-impossible policies can also have the effect of intensifying enthusiasm for opposition. Both of these limits on the power of will have emerged as the pandemic lingers.

While there has been talk of continuing many of the pandemic-related reforms, particularly those involving strengthening the safety net, those suggestions have been met primarily with concerns about costs. This presents a test as the urgency of the pandemic subsides. Having seen the benefits of a stronger safety net, will policymakers maintain the will to leave them in place? Or, absent a crisis at hand, will they be tempted to make cuts that shift the costs back onto vulnerable individuals and families? Similarly, translating the anger from the summer of 2020 into a sustainable effort to address criminal justice will require maintaining the will generated in a passionate moment through the tedium of policymaking.

Doing so becomes an even greater challenge because as an emergency pushes the bounds of potential policy change, opponents of that change strengthen their resistance. This was evident in the backlash against 2020’s Black Lives Matter movements – in the moment, resistance often took the form of criticism of the protesters, but as the work shifts to policymaking, those pushing for greater law enforcement accountability will do so in the face of fierce opposition. The opposition to extending the pandemic safety net or expanding health benefits is likely to be less emotional, but no less organized. Indeed, the politicization of the pandemic more broadly, seen in resistance to health directives, mask mandates, and vaccines, demonstrates the depth of the challenge ahead. Such resistance presents a true test of will.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered so much about the way we see the world and it is unlikely that we can ever return to the world that existed before such a formative societal experience. Amidst the trauma, however, we have been pushed to find new solutions to long-existing problems. The pandemic created a space to reimagine what
is possible and revealed that old excuses for not taking action to assist the most vulnerable could be removed so long as there was a will to do so. Having now seen how policies can provide stability within our community, the challenge is ensuring that such policies will continue to do so.

Recommendations

  • Research: Study the effectiveness of pandemic-related responses to persistent social problems, such as housing instability, employment instability, disparate access to technology, and reduction in bail, to demonstrate the impacts of these policies and their value even outside the context of the pandemic. Collect both qualitative and quantitative data.
  • Organize: Build coalitions of individuals, community groups, and institutions to support efforts to pursue extension and expansion of successful pandemic-related policies addressing persistent social problems.
  • Advocate: Identify policymakers at all levels of government willing to lead in extending and expanding successful pandemic-related policies addressing persistent social problems; prepare to respond to criticisms of such extensions or expansions from unsympathetic individuals, groups, institutions, or policymakers.
  • Persist: Prepare for long-term work in preserving successful efforts as immediate urgency wanes, attention

shifts, and work evolves to more tedious efforts to build and implement policies.

REFERENCES

  • Alcala Kovalski, M., & Sheiner, L. (2020, July 20). How does unemployment insurance work? And how is it changing during the coronavirus pandemic?” Brookings Institute. Retrieved from https://www.brookings. edu/blog/up-front/2020/07/20/how-does-unemployment-insurance-work-and-how-is-it-changing-during- the-coronavirus-pandemic/
  • Camera, L. (2020, April 1). Disconnected and disadvantaged: Schools race to give students access. US News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2020-04-01/schools-rush-to-get- students-internet-access-during-coronavirus-pandemic
  • Dries, B. (2021, Jan. 6). Harris proposes county $2.5million restaurant workers relief fund. The Daily Memphian. Retrieved from https://dailymemphian.com/article/19120/harris-proposes-county-25m-restaurant-workers
  • Edmondson, C. (2020, March 25). 5 things in the $2 trillion Coronavirus stimulus package. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/us/politics/whats-in-coronavirus-stimulus-bill.html
  • Gipson, R., Jr. (2021, May 12). Why qualified immunity privilege is bad public policy and must be eliminated.
    The Commercial Appeal. Retrieved from https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/opinion/2021/05/12/ why-qualified-immunity-privilege-should-eliminated/5056753001/
  • Holguin, B. (2020, August 4). SCS provides internet hotspots to 24,000 families. WMC Action News 5. Retrieved from https://www.actionnews5.com/2020/08/04/scs-provides-internet-hotspots-families/
  • Kindy, K., Schaul, K., & Mellnik, T. (2020, September 6). Half of the nation’s largest police departments have banned or limited neck restraints since June. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www. washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/police-use-of-force-chokehold-carotid-ban/
  • Ramsey Mason, K. (2020, September 3). What the CDC eviction ban means for renters and landlords: 6 questions answered. Associated Press, Retrieved from https://apnews.com/ article/17b98671a11b95772dc2cdf1d9bcd490
  • Rowan, L. (2021, August 6). Biden Education Department announces one more student loan forbearance extension. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/personal-finance/student-loan- forbearance-additional-extension/
  • Thompson, C. (2020, July 24). This city stopped sending police to every 911 call. The Marshall Project. Retrieved from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/07/24/crisisresponders

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