This article was originally published by the Houston Chronicle.
For weeks, pandemic-induced overbuying has resulted in shortages of staple foods and sanitation products. With their shelves stripped, supermarkets are donating much less to food banks just as those services are being overwhelmed by a surge of newly jobless clients. Disinfectant wipes are selling for extortionate prices online — if they are available at all.
Now, COVID-19 outbreaks have hit meatpacking plants in at least eight states, sickening hundreds of workers. Plant after plant is shutting down, and the supply of meat is dwindling. Concern is growing that the coronavirus will increasingly infect and kill workers in all sectors of food production and processing. Food retailers, already reeling from excess consumer demand and struggling to stop the spread of infection in their own workforce, could be hit with even more acute scarcity as their supply chains fall apart.
In our work on the climate emergency, we think a lot about fair allocation of resources in times of crisis. As we’ve watched the current shortages persist and grow, historical precedents have led us to a clear conclusion: Now is the time to establish a federal system of rationing and price controls for a basket of staple foods, medications, sanitation products and other essentials.
As always in times of crisis, the market is failing to prevent overbuying. Retailers’ efforts to limit numbers of items per customer have not stopped the bleeding. Now, if the virus lays waste to the national supply chain, the market will offer no protections against widespread scarcity and inflation.
We need action that achieves both sufficiency and fairness. Time and again, governments faced with scarcity of food and other goods, whether it’s caused by short supply or the mere anticipation of short supply, have turned to price controls and rationing.
The most familiar precedents are the successful rationing programs for a wide range of goods in the United States and United Kingdom during World War II. When a global food crisis followed in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, the security provided by guaranteed rations of staples in countries around the world helped stave off hunger and panic.
President Donald Trump has failed to fully exercise his broad authority over resource allocation under the Defense Production Act of 1950, and there is no chance that he would consider rationing and price controls. It will likely be up to the Congress to take such actions.
The House and Senate have demonstrated that they can pass big, dramatic legislation by large majorities in response to the coronavirus emergency. A veto-proof vote for a rationing bill, we believe, could be the likeliest pathway to a federal rationing program.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) could serve as the model for a rationing mechanism. Today under SNAP, each household’s benefits are held in an electronic account. In the checkout line, money is transferred from the customer’s SNAP account to the retailer through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.
For rationing, a card like the EBT could be used to transfer World War II-style “points” to the retailer with each purchase of rationed items — not from a bank account but from the household’s ration account. Customers would still use cash or credit cards to pay for the items.
Price controls and rationing can quell the excess demand now plaguing the food industry, and they will become even more crucial to ensuring sufficiency for all in the event of supply scarcity should it arise. However, the legislation must contain strong provisions guaranteeing extensive congressional oversight and barring the executive branch from implementing any of the policies in corrupt or discriminatory ways.
Even with sufficient supplies and price controls, however, economically stressed households and many communities of color — those already being hit hardest by both COVID-19 and lack of access to good food — will not be able to afford their full share of rationed goods. With employment and incomes in sharp decline, calls for sweeping policies such as universal basic services, which would guarantee access to food and other goods and services regardless of income, must be taken seriously and acted upon.
Rationing of consumer goods would be nothing like the tragic triage-style rationing of hospital beds, equipment and supplies that can occur during pandemics, wars and other disasters. The system we propose is meant to prevent deprivation.
This form of rationing would guarantee all households the quantities of basic goods that they need while helping reduce the dangerous viral exposure and punishing workloads that grocery employees are now enduring.
In times of real or imagined scarcity, when the market’s invisible hand pushes us to put our own interests above those of others, fair-shares rationing can foster cooperative problem-solving, mutual aid and a sense of common purpose — exactly what we’re going to need in the frightening months that lie ahead.