Health Reform Now – for the Next Recession

Alice M. Rivlin
Alice Rivlin
Alice M. Rivlin Former Brookings Expert

September 16, 2009

Editor’s Note – the following commentary was presented by Alice Rivlin on PBS’ Nightly Business Report.

Unemployment is still rising, and full recovery from this recession will be slow. But we will not have another Great Depression, like the 1930s–with 25 percent unemployment and widespread hunger and destitution. Reforms enacted in the Great Depression are preventing a similar catastrophe now. Social Security, although enacted too late to help anyone in the 1930’s, is maintaining  incomes of seniors today and preventing drastic cuts in their standard of living. Unemployment insurance, set up too late to have much impact in the 1930’s, is sustaining today’s unemployed. Deposit insurance, created in response to bank runs by frantic depositors in the 1930s, prevented a repeat performance in the current financial crisis.

But this recession exposed a huge hole in our defenses against the devastating effects of an economic downturn on ordinary people. As unemployment rises, millions of people lose their health insurance along with their jobs and millions more live in fear of the same fate. Universal health coverage, now being debated in Congress, will not be up and running in time to help the victims of this recession. But we need to enact it now – not just out of compassion for the uninsured, but to reduce the impact of future recessions on working people and make our economy more resilient.