Dec 12, 2020 - Technology

The death spiral of public life

Illustration of an interior apartment window facing a cityscape with a sign reading "Closed Due to Coronavirus"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

By removing Americans from public life, the pandemic is threatening long-term damage to the essential services we all share — like schools and transit — while worsening inequality.

Why it matters: Technology has helped keep many — though far from all of us — working, fed and even entertained at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the forced retreat from public life will have toxic ramifications unless the places and services we all share can be saved.

The big picture: As deadly as COVID-19 has been for those who have caught it, the pandemic could prove even more devastating for the institutions and services that make up the civic sphere.

  • Public schools across the country have seen a drastic drop in enrollment, in part because parents frustrated by COVID-closed classrooms and poor remote learning have turned to private schools, which have remained open at higher rates than their public counterparts. Some families are even homeschooling.
  • Combined with students moving to private schools, that could lead to budget cuts for public schools that get funding on a per-student basis.
  • Public transit systems have been crippled by COVID-19, as ridership plummets because of fear of infection and a shift to remote work. The drop in demand comes as funding for public transportation is threatened by plunging state and local government revenue.

And the office — that private space in public where many of us used to gather on a daily basis — is mortally threatened. Nearly 14% of office space in Midtown Manhattan is vacant, the highest rate since the depths of the 2009 recession.

  • A recent McKinsey report found three to four times more people could end up working remotely than before the pandemic, which "would have a profound impact on urban economies, transportation, and consumer spending."
  • The hospitality industry faces an existential crisis, with nearly 1 in 6 restaurants closing permanently or long-term as of September.

Be smart: It might be easy to assume we'll reenter public life when the pandemic finally ends. But habits once broken aren't easily restored, especially as the knock-on effects of COVID-19 erode the value of public services.

  • Both public schools and transit face what some experts have called a "death spiral." As frustrated parents and scared passengers withdraw from the public system, they take tax dollars and fares with them, which means schools and transit services worsen.
  • That, in turn, "will cause some of our customers to say, 'you know what, it's not worth it,'" as Pat Foye, the head of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority told Bloomberg TV last month.

Those changes will widen what was already a yawning gap of inequality in the U.S., as only those who can't afford private solutions are left to make do with public remnants.

  • "The secession of upper-middle-class families from public school to private school is very bad for the country and for educational equity," Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity at The Century Foundation, told TIME.

Between the lines: Both push and pull factors are at work in the dissolution of public life.

  • As technology has improved, so have the benefits of staying at home, where you can increasingly watch what you want, eat what you want, and — if you're fortunate — work how you want, all on your own schedule.
  • In the years to come, TVs and game systems — like the next-generation platforms that sold out in seconds this fall — will only improve.
  • What this means is that public life and services — which require us to do the messy work of compromising with our fellow citizens — will be competing against an on-demand private life that will only get better in the years ahead.

What to watch: Whether Congress approves billions of dollars in much-needed money to rescue public transit and schools as part of a new round of COVID-19 stimulus funding.

The bottom line: It matters hugely whether our future involves returning to the office and public life or watching streaming reruns of "The Office" from our couches while ordering from DoorDash.

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