Public Options Reading List

Public options—a good or service that is 1) government-provided, procured, or authorized; 2) available to all; and 3) can coexist with private options, creating positive outcomes for communities—are playing an increasing role in providing essential services and goods at affordable prices, in everything from housing to healthcare to groceries to utilities. Public options give power back to local communities, re-build trust in governments, and create a more equitable and inclusive market.  

America has a long history of deploying public options to build thriving communities–think of the postal service, libraries, and public K-12 education. Today, many states and municipalities are using public options in cutting edge areas, creating even more economic opportunity and helping to level the playing field for ordinary Americans.  California has launched the CalRx initiative to produce low-cost insulin; Maine is pushing for consumer-owned power; and Oklahoma and Boston have launched universal Pre-K initiatives. In addition, Washington, Colorado, and Nevada have all passed legislation to create a public option for health insurance, and Virginia has begun discussions to do the same. Moreover, there are over two dozen campaigns for postal banking and public banking across the nation. In February 2023, Illinois Governor Pritzker announced a $20 million dollar investment to open municipal grocery stores in underserved communities, where private grocers have a history of abandoning communities. This wave of initiatives vividly demonstrates how government action can make the economy more fair for everyone, giving Americans more opportunity to thrive. 

These recent articles, books, and videos offer views of public option campaigns and the narratives surrounding them.

Suggested Readings

Alstott, A., & Sitaraman, G. (2021). Challenges in Designing Equitable Public Options. In G. Sitaraman & A. Alstott (Eds.), Politics, Policy, and Public Options (pp. 45-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alstott and Sitaraman explore six primary challenges to public options and propose solutions to overcome them through inclusive design. These challenges include 1) that they may not be available or accessible by people of color; 2) that the public option may be of lower quality or has a different population using it than private options; 3) whether it sufficiently expands equality and access; 4) that there could be complex design and administration to block equity; 5) the degree to which the option is public or partially public, which depends on the particular good or service; and 6) that our system of federalism leads to fractured provision of public options across the country. To overcome these challenges, we can build broad constituencies in support of public options and utilize legal enforcement through the courts to combat discrimination and racism; and ensure that the government agencies tasked with overseeing and administering public options are themselves designed with maximum participation and representation.

Darity, W., Hamilton, D., & Mabud, M. (2019, May). Increasing Public Power to Increase Competition: A Foundation for An Inclusive Economy. The Roosevelt Institute. 

This issue brief argues for the federal government to introduce public options to advance social well-being, individual agency, and increased universal access to the economic rights of all Americans. Darity, Hamilton, and Mabud do not call for a comprehensive public takeover of all productive activities in the U.S. economy; instead, they evaluate public options for employment, health, housing, education, and financial services as ripe government interventions to combat the high-cost, low-quality options currently offered by private actors in those sectors. 

Mazzucato, M., & Li, H. (2021). The Entrepreneurial State and Public Options: Socializing Risks and Rewards. G. Sitaraman & A. Alstott (Eds.), Politics, Policy, and Public Options (pp. 20-44). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mazzucato and Li argue that the government should actively shape markets to promote innovation that delivers public rewards through public options in pharmaceuticals. Although the public has invested in some of the riskiest stages of R&D, the current system has not worked for members of the public. To ensure that rewards are equitably distributed, they argue that the government should govern the drug innovation process like a market-shaper: steering innovation, securing fair prices, ensuring fair competition and patents enforcement, setting conditions for reinvestment, and safeguarding medicine supply. The public option is a compelling means for the government to shape pharmaceutical drug and innovation policy to serve the broader public interest and ensure access to medicine.

Pawar, A., & Williams, D. (2022, May 9). End food deserts with publicly owned grocery stores. Chicago Sun-Times. (  

Pawar and Williams argue that relying on financial incentives to attract market actors to retain services and goods essential for communities is not a reliable approach. Instead, they argue that establishing a public option for grocery stores, one that is owned and run by the City of Chicago, can create a sustainable and transformational path to increasing access to affordable, convenient and healthy food among residents, particularly those living in food deserts. They argue that the City can finance public options by leveraging federal recovery funds and that the City already has expertise operating public enterprises including the airport and water systems. Lastly, the authors point to the fact that small municipalities like Baldwin, Florida have successfully established a municipal-owned grocery store, and that a larger city like Chicago has the capacity to innovate and expertise to do the same. 

** Rahman, K. S. (2020, October 11). Fix America by Undoing Decades of Privatization. The Atlantic. 

Rahman explores how public investment in key services and systems can be part of a broader effort to design policies around equity and inclusion. Underinvesting in public infrastructure–and the resulting privatization—has led to unfair, and arbitrary practices that exclude communities of color and instead preserve public infrastructure only for wealthy, white communities. He identifies two key areas—1) foundational back-end services like water, electricity, mail, credit, broadband, and other similar services, and 2) safety net and systems for community care like health care, child care, public schools, and more—where public infrastructure is duly needed. Rahman also advocates for guardrails through regulations ensuring quality, non-discrimination, fair pricing, and equitable access—sometimes through public provision through public options–to ensure that these infrastructures remain truly public in nature.

** Sitaraman, G. and Alstott, A.L. (2019, July 6). There Should be a Public Option For Everything. The New York Times.

Sitaraman and Alstott argue for a reimagined relationship between markets and government, where public options supplement the private market for basic necessities. In their recounting, America has a long history of public options–including public libraries, public swimming pools, public education, and the post office– industries that also offer private options. The public options provide a baseline for products and services, create a more educated workforce, stimulate the economy, and promote greater social interaction across differences. Historically, public options have been used to discriminate, such as with Jim Crow laws, but we have a chance to invest in solutions that center access and inclusion for everyone to create a democratic economy.  

** Winter, E. (2021, January 26). Memo: Voters Want A Public Option for Broadband, Child Care and Housing. Data for Progress. 

Polling from Data for Progress taken in December 2020, shows broad support for public options and direct government action in infrastructure, broadband, childcare, and housing across political voting blocks. Public investment in infrastructure is the most popular. When benchmarked against the status quo and tax credits, voters not only supported creating public options but also preferred them to both the status quo and tax credits.

Wong, F. (2020, August 20). The Policy Bedrock of a True New Deal. Boston Review. 

Wong suggests five policy solutions that would build on the ideas of the New Deal, two of which would create public options.  First, universal public childcare to benefit workers, caretakers, and the market. The private market does not provide enough childcare options- Wong suggests adopting solutions from the New Deal era publicly funded and staffed childcare programs. When working parents have access to affordable, quality childcare the whole economy is boosted by improved productivity and job creation. Further, workers in childcare, who are disproportionately Black and brown women, often work in poverty. A publicly run childcare system can ensure living wages and worker protections to improve the working conditions currently standardized in the private childcare market. Secondly, a public option for financing industries that the private sector has overlooked. Private capital has focused on short term investment strategies, largely in finance and retail, while long term growth industries like climate and technology are underinvested. Wong suggests a public investment firm, similar to the New Deal era Reconstruction Finance Corporation, that could use loans and investments to spur industries that produce the technology to solve the complex problems facing us today, climate change, failing infrastructure, and social inequality. Underscoring both of these solutions is the explicit inclusion of racial and gender analysis to guide policy decisions. 

Omarova, S. & Tucker, T. (2023, March 27). Industrial Policy Requires Public, Not Just Private, Equity. Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. 

Omarova and Tucker argue that the unregulated growth of the financial sector has been harmful to the larger economy, and a return to industrial policy, where the government takes a proactive approach to shaping markets, is the solution. Trends like the collapse of FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange, are highlighting the need for better government regulation to maintain stability in the economy. They argue that the federal government should, and has, taken a proactive approach through the CHIPS Act and other infrastructure bills, to invest federal funds into critical industries, including green energy and new technology. The article argues for shifting incentives from short-term returns to investing in innovative infrastructure, clean manufacturing, and other productive sectors through a public option for private-equity type investment, such as a federal climate banks, or a publicly owned and managed investment platform for pension holders or individuals to invest in non-traditional industries.  

**Rahman, S.K. (2016, November 29). Challenging the New Curse of Bigness. The American Prospect.  

Rahman calls for the revival of three Progressive Era tools—antitrust laws, public utility style regulation, and public options—to serve as a check against concentrated private power. These tools must exist in tandem, and public options are a critical complement to renewed antitrust enforcement and public utility regulation. Rahman argues we should return to an economy where the government is actively involved in the market to regulate industries; and we should use public options, run by the government, to spur competition in the market, to create a baseline for product and services. 

Further Watching: 

Public Banking Institute. (2019, January 31). Public Banking Made Easy – Public Banking Institute

This short explainer video introduces the concept of public banks, which are owned by the residents of a city, state, region, or territory. Public banks can reflect the values, needs, and wants of residents; drive cost savings for communities; help finance local projects; and provide a financing mechanism for community needs including renewable energy, housing, and infrastructure. 

Wall Street Journal. (2022, August 17). Why Insulin Is So Expensive and How California Aims to Produce Its Own | WSJ

The Wall Street Journal explains how monopolization of the market, and pharmaceutical middle men, have led to insulin costing exponentially more in America than in other comparable countries. Other companies have experimented with cutting costs by bypassing the three producers of insulin and the pharmaceutical middle-men. California is looking at a solution that combines both options, and because the state is not looking to profit, can substantially reduce the price Californians pay for their insulin.