Look, if there’s one thing that the debates over coronavirus relief have taught us, it’s that Americans really appreciate getting a check from the government. Maybe the whole idea of sending cash to around 85 percent of the country would have been less popular and more controversial in normal times, when we weren’t all coping with an economically catastrophic plague. But it turned to be so wildly and obviously popular this year that Congress essentially couldn’t help but add them to its second relief bill, after lawmakers toyed with leaving them out (which I personally thought would have been fine). Donald Trump understood that checks were a winner, which is why he kept roaring for them while ignoring almost every other aspect of negotiations. So did sens. Bernie Sanders, Josh Hawley, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell. A broad, ideologically diverse coalition figured out that, yeah, people appreciate money in their pocket.
So, here’s a dashed off thought: Why not just do this every year? Send people some cash at the beginning of December, just as they’re getting ready for gift shopping, and call it a “holiday bonus.” An army of online nerds and Andrew Yang have already popularized the idea of a universal basic income. Pandemic relief has helped warm up everyone else to the concept. Now: String some tinsel on the idea and make it a Yuletide tradition. I mean, you can talk about how cash transfers efficiently reduce poverty without hurting work incentives and improve things like educational outcomes, but this argument kind of just sells itself: Doesn’t everybody deserve a Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or secular winter festival) present?
Have I thought out the logistics of this at all? No, not even remotely. I don’t have a dollar figure in mind, or even a basic sketch of a program. (Though, to be clear, I’m thinking of something in the $500 to $1,000 range.) Maybe we send a check to every adult. Maybe we send one to every adult and child (perhaps we could try to roll the Child Tax Credit into the holiday bonus.) We can debate details later. What I know is that Americans seem to like checks, and promising to make them a yearly event might potentially be a politically popular way to build up America’s welfare state a bit. It’s at least worth further investigation (Data for Progress, I’m looking at you). Plus, the potential for puns is fantastic. Snowcialism! Stimul-mas!
As the People’s Policy Project founder Matt Bruenig noted when he pitched this idea in 2017, other countries already have some version of a holiday bonus. As he wrote:
It is customary in many parts of the world for businesses to pay what’s called a thirteenth salary. This means that workers get an extra check in December equal to one month of pay. The thirteenth salary is required by law in countries like Brazil and Italy and required by collective bargaining agreements in countries like Germany and Austria.
The 13th salary? I don’t love that notion, since presumably companies just make up for it by cutting what workers earn through the rest of the year. But a bonus from the government is a different, more appealing story altogether. We could even hype up the money drop with a cheesy annual ceremony—have the Treasury Secretary dress up as Santa and hit send on some direct deposits. What, money doesn’t grow on trees, you say? This is America. We can make it grow on Christmas trees.