Pandemic Policy Feedback Loops: US Government’s Unprecedented COVID-19 Relief Policies Forged Pathways for Democracy Enhancement

New Roosevelt Institute report explores the possibilities of future policy feedback and existing political constraints related to the child tax credit, student loan pause, and eviction moratorium

October 19, 2023
Anthony Thomas
(212) 444-9130

New York, NY — During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States government undertook extraordinary measures to mitigate the economic repercussions faced by its citizens. Among the most pivotal policies introduced were emergency rental assistance, an expanded child tax credit, and a pause on student loan payments. These policy interventions also put a spotlight on policy feedback—the political consequences of policy that shape people’s attitudes and, by extension, future policy. Many supporters of these pandemic interventions believed that the undeniable benefits felt by Americans would encourage the extension of these policies or the adoption of similar policies in the future. The absence of the expected positive feedback has raised new questions about how much policy really shapes politics. 

Policy Feedback in the Pandemic: Lessons from Three Key Policies, a new Roosevelt Institute report, uses these three aforementioned policies to understand how policy design choices and existing political constraints create and limit the possibilities for policy feedback. Authored by Jamila Michener, associate professor of government and public policy at Cornell University, the report takes a deep dive into the fraught political paths of these policies and their potential future impact based on their implementation. 

“Policy feedback loops are complex and impossible to engineer. However, a strategic approach to political change requires being attuned to the possibilities for feedback. This means making active efforts to limit negative feedback loops that undermine democratic participation and political change while advancing positive feedback that facilitates such change,” said Michener.

As a result of this research, the author found that democracy-enhancing policy feedback loops are more likely when:

  • Civil society organizations intensively and strategically build power among the target populations most affected by policy and most crucial for altering existing power dynamics;
  • Policymakers and civil society organizations develop and coordinate messaging and organizing strategies aimed at shifting policy discourse and public perceptions in ways that facilitate long-term wins; 
  • Policymakers and policy advocates design feedback-sensitive policy featuring at least four key elements: (1) longer durations of policy benefits; (2) immediate benefit without lags; (3) centralized and streamlined policy delivery; and (4) minimal administrative burden; and 
  • Civil society organizations and policymakers render the government’s role in providing economic relief as visible as possible for as long as possible, particularly to the populations most vulnerable in the face of existing political-economic configurations, whose inclusion in political processes is most vital.

“These risks, along with the contemporary reality of strong institutional barriers to transformative policymaking, make it all the more important that we think clearly about how to nurture positive feedback. Such thinking is a vital prerequisite for cultivating a policy landscape more responsive to the needs and preferences of working-class, low-income, and racially marginalized Americans—a landscape reflecting a more robust, equitable, and inclusive democracy and economy,” said Michener.