The scarcity economy has made life harder on Americans. Some are calling for an 'abundance agenda' to make college, housing, and healthcare more affordable.

The scarcity economy has made life harder on Americans. Some are calling for an 'abundance agenda' to make college, housing, and healthcare more affordable.
Shoppers stocking up on staples like toilet paper and canned goods at a Massachusetts Costco on March 13, 2020, in the early days of the COVID pandemic.John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • The costs of healthcare, housing, childcare, and college have soared in recent decades.
  • Some say an "abundance agenda" is necessary to boost supply and bring down costs.

Over the past few decades, the costs of healthcare, housing, childcare, energy, and college have soared in the United States.

While some policies like universal basic income, child tax credits, and housing vouchers have caught on as ways to help people pay their bills, a growing movement of politicians and economists is calling for an "abundance agenda" to address the US's scarcity problem. In short, the abundance agenda works by increasing the supply of the things people need, and ultimately making essential goods and services less expensive for American families.

Supporters haven't coalesced around a single name for this framework, which has also been called "supply-side progressivism" and "new industrialism." In general, however, they say the US needs to build more homes, train more doctors, increase access to great education, and invest more in renewable energy.

"Concerns about rising housing, energy, and higher education costs are not new," Richard Morrison, senior fellow at libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute and a supporter of the abundance agenda, told Insider. "But the understanding of what is fueling the problem is becoming better understood."

Since the turn of the century, cheaper overseas manufacturing costs in countries like China have driven down prices for goods like smartphones, TVs, and computers. But childcare, healthcare, college tuition, and housing costs, for instance, have risen 115%, 130%, 178%, and 80%, respectively, well above inflation. Rather than simply providing American families more money to meet these rising expenses — an idea embraced by fans of the popular universal basic income policy — abundance supporters argue the country also needs a massive boost in supply to reduce shortages and bring down costs.


The scarcity economy has made life harder on Americans. Some are calling for an 'abundance agenda' to make college, housing, and healthcare more affordable.
Mark Perry

"We've limited capacity in areas like home building and power transmission," Morrison said. "And we've repeatedly responded to rising prices in higher education and healthcare, for example, by subsidizing demand while continuing to constrain supply — a response that's guaranteed to produce higher prices."

In some ways, abundance advocates are pushing back against a "scarcity mindset" — the belief that there simply isn't enough of something to go around and therefore obtaining resources requires competition. They want to shift the country's focus from its current shortage of goods and services to the potential for abundant supply if its leaders make the proper policy decisions. It's not to be confused with supply-side economics, a framework that advocates for tax cuts and deregulation that are intended to give private companies more power to produce.

Advocates also argue it's possible to create abundance without dire environmental consequences.

"We can have more energy, more housing, better roads, airports, and trains, and better access to education/job training without destroying the planet," Adam Millsap, Senior Fellow at the right-leaning funding organization Stand Together, told Insider.


While lawmakers largely aren't using terms like "abundance" to describe their policy agendas, some action has been taken in recent years in the US to increase supply. This includes Operation Warp Speed's vaccine production, the bipartisan CHIPs bill to boost the US semiconductor industry, Biden administration initiatives to increase housing construction, and the Inflation Reduction Act — which incentivized renewable energy production.

But many say the US has barely scratched the surface.

How the US might reach "abundance"

Supply problems go beyond childcare and housing, as the pandemic showcased when shortages became abundant. The US economy found itself short on everything from toilet paper to semiconductor chips — not to mention workers — something some corporations are looking to address by bringing their supply chains closer to home.

Last year, The Atlantic's Derek Thompson detailed some of the reasons for the elevated costs across the US economy, as well as some ideas for what can be done to combat them.

In healthcare, for instance, the US has fewer doctors per capita than almost every other developed country. Increasing access to telehealth, improving the medical residency system, and making it easier for nurses and foreign-trained doctors to deliver care, he said, could help increase access and reduce costs.


In housing, where home and rental vacancy rates are near record lows, Thompson said the US should push back on regulations that make it difficult to build large apartments and ban single-family zoning.

In higher education, where elite universities aren't expanding enrollment and admitting fewer low-income students, he suggested exploring digital education options to put additional pressure on universities when it comes to enrollment and tuition prices.

And rather than reducing demand for energy, for instance, to combat the climate crisis — he argued for policies that would speed up the development and deployment of abundant and cheap renewable energy.

To make the progress abundance advocates are looking for, action is needed on each of the local, state, and federal government levels. In the years to come, however, a divided Congress may stall some of the proposals supporters have been hoping for.

The future of the abundance agenda

Today, the CEI's Morrison says the idea of an abundance agenda is mainly discussed in the "world of professional writers, journalists, analysts, and pundits," but he expects it to eventually reach a wider audience.


"Enthusiasm for the abundance agenda is bipartisan and transcends the ideological spectrum – it has fans on both the conservative and liberal sides – so it's only a matter of time before it becomes more widely discussed."

He thinks the abundance agenda — or something like it — will be something many politicians campaign on someday, which he says would be a win for all Americans.

"An economic system based on the abundance agenda will result in significantly more economic growth and welfare gains for Americans of all income and education levels," he said. "This will be a rising tide that lifts all boats."

Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group, the left-of-center think tank, is a bit more skeptical. While he's generally supportive of the abundance agenda's ideals, he told Insider they are still "very undefined."

"Everyone wants more good things," he said. "Coming to consensus on what things are 'good' — and what trade-offs to accept in getting them — is the hard part."


What if the policies needed to promote clean energy, Dutzik asks, also "pave the way for more fossil fuels," as he says last year's failed permitting reform bill might have done. There would likely be strong disagreement in Washington on how to proceed.

There's also the question of "What should be abundant — and what shouldn't?" In a post last year, Dutzik argued that the "abundance" of the US's road network for cars, for instance, has contributed to extensive air pollution and traffic fatalities. The abundance of food in America, meanwhile — though generally a positive development — has contributed to the country's significant food waste and high obesity rate, he said, while easy access to the internet and social media may be fueling mental health problems among young Americans.

"For an abundance agenda to truly gain traction, and to truly make a difference, it needs to be clear not only about what we need more of, but also what we need less of," he said.