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Get Paid To Get Vaccinated? How One Economist Proposes We Reach Herd Immunity

Gloved hands use a syringe to deliver a shot in the arm.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

If voluntary vaccinations don't work, the economist thinks $1,000 payments to individuals for getting COVID-19 shots would serve a public good.

Like a lot of people, Bob Litan and his wife, Margaret, have been cooped up in their Lawrence home during the pandemic.

Other than the occasional walk and visit to the doctor’s office, they’ve been indoors for nearly a year.

Vaccinations have begun, but Litan says he’s concerned not enough people will voluntarily get one.

Litan is a non-resident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Bob Litan is a non-resident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He's proposing the government pays people to get vaccinated for COVID-19: $200 to get the first dose, and $800 when the country reaches herd immunity.
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Bob Litan is a non-resident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He's proposing the government pays people to get vaccinated for COVID-19: $200 to get the first dose, and $800 when the country reaches herd immunity.

He said he did some "back-of-the-envelope calculations" that showed about 250 million people will need to get vaccinated for the country to reach herd immunity and return to life pre-pandemic.

But if not enough people voluntarily step forward, Litan is proposing a kind of Plan B: He says the government should pay people to take the vaccine — $200 when people get the shot, and another $800 when the country reaches herd immunity.

Litan was born in McPherson and grew up in Wichita. He has a law degree and doctorate in economics from Yale University. 

He talked with Tom Shine and The Range about his plan, why the cost is worth it and what it says about our current political climate that people may skip the vaccine.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Tom Shine: Give us a general outline of your thoughts on paying people to take the vaccine.

Bob Litan: So last August I wrote a piece that came out of really conversations with my wife. We're both in the 70 age group, and we're talking to ourselves, we're saying, 'How are we ever going to get out of the house if not enough people take the vaccine?'

And so the only two ways you can really get there are either mandating people to take the shot, which I think in this current environment would probably come close to inciting a revolution, or a monetary inducement. And that's what led me to propose $1,000 per person.

You call your idea Plan B; Plan A being that enough people would agree on their own to take the vaccine. … You're not confident that we'll hit that mark to get to herd immunity.

Well, I'm really glad you mentioned Plan B because it is a Plan B. I'm not advocating that tomorrow the administration roll out with this plan because we ought to give public health officials and the administration and other people … a chance to encourage people to voluntarily take the vaccine And the reason we need a Plan B is what happens if we don't get there?

Your plan would cost about $250 billion … but you've argued that still makes economic sense. Explain that a little bit.

Basically it's money to pay the country and ourselves to get the economy back to full employment. Because if we don't reach herd immunity, we're going to be at a sub-optimal level of economic output and employment, and therefore sub-optimal amount of tax revenue and just not having our lives back.

And for $250 billion, I know it sounds like a lot of money, but you know, we're talking about trillions now of helping people in various rescue packages. And if we could just do this once and for all, and just get rid of this thing, I think that it would be money that would be well worth it.

There's been critics of your plan, which is not a surprise. The most common one I see is that offering payments somehow sends a signal that the government is unsure that this vaccine is totally safe. What are your thoughts on that particular line of thinking?

It would be a concern if this were Plan A, in other words, we were doing it now. And if you were worried about turning people off, then you wouldn't want to do it at the beginning.

But when you couch the plan as a Plan B, which is basically after all the voluntary people are done, then the question is: What do you have to lose at that point? You've got a good portion of the country that has not taken the shot when they had the chance to do so. It's not as if now all of a sudden they're going to change their mind.

So it's not as if we're going to make things worse. We can only make things better as a Plan B because then we can switch some people who were on the fence. They would say to themselves, 'You know, for $1,000' — and by the way, for a family of four that's $4,000, that's a lot of money to kiss away — 'we'll take the money and take the shot.'

Is there a precedent in our history or in the world's history for this type of a plan?

Not in the U.S., but there are examples in less-developed countries for paying people to take vaccines in a lot lower amount. But we haven't had something like this since 1918.

We haven't had a program to actually pay people, but then we haven't been as divided as we have been. So this is not like polio back in the 1950s … and there was no mass resistance. People did it, but now you got a lot of people who don't trust science. They don't trust the government. They don't trust doctors.

And in a world of very low trust, the only way I can think of to overcome that is to actually pay people to overcome it. It's the price we have to pay for our political division if we really want to get out of this mess.
Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit .

Tom is the Director of News and Public Affairs. He joins KMUW after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle in a variety of reporting and editing roles.
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