Our economy has been devastated in ways that none of us imagined. National unemployment continues to rise. It is not unrealistic to expect that the unemployment rate will crest at 30%. As daunting as this number seems, unemployment will be worse in the most challenged segments of the community. Pre-COVID unemployment in African-American and Hispanic communities was triple the national average.
COVID-19 is an economic disaster for communities of color. It is hitting small business, Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs) and hourly/gig workers in ways that most of us don’t understand. JPMorgan Chase Institute researchers recently reported that Black and Latinx community businesses on average do not have the working capital to endure the pandemic. In general, these businesses have less than 21 days of cash on hand to pay creditors, meet payroll and continue operations. The Paycheck Protection Program did not provide the help these businesses need to survive. Many will perish.
As dire as these statements are, recovery is possible. In fact, it is more than possible. Now is the time for us to correct some of the systemic wrongs that plagued our society prior to the pandemic. We must rebuild our economy. The challenge is whether we will use this time to recreate what was lost or do we have to the audacity, the tenacity, the creativity and the courage to chart a new path for our community. We have a choice to make. Will we choose business as usual, which we argue is not possible, or will we accept the challenge to create a better and stronger Philadelphia?
Our new economy must be built around the 5 Rs:
• Recognition: Acknowledging the full scope of the economic damage done to our community. Recognition requires that we look at the total impact of the pandemic. We cannot ignore the impact on MBEs, African-American and Hispanic workers and historically low-income workers who were not thriving before COVID-19.
• Recovery: Focusing on the immediate survival needs of the community has been essential. The economy fell apart at lightning speed and has required that every resource be directed toward food, health care and stabilizing K-12 education. This is a response. It is not a strategy for recovery. We have been responding to the impact of COVID-19. Actual recovery will require a plan to rebuild the economy. A robust economy is sustainable. A response plan, no matter how robust, is not a long-term strategy. A robust economy equips every family to be self-sustaining. We can use this time to design an economy, a health care system, including mental health care, and K-12 education that empowers all members of the community.
• Reimagining: To that end, our strategy must be focused on what will be done differently. This conversation is not one simply about increasing the use of remote working and remote learning. Such a plan merely sidesteps the real issues and sends us down a rabbit hole of retrenchment. As we rebuild, this is an opportunity to establish the society we assert that we want: a society where success is driven by talent and effort, not race or class. Now is the time. Our current pandemic is an opportunity to champion new directions.
• Reform: Consistent with Reimagining, this is the time to remove the barriers to inclusion. Given our shared goal of a robust economy that reduces unemployment and poverty, we need to remove the legal and financial barriers to full productivity. Rather than retrench and pull back from bringing MBEs to the table, recovery will require that we focus on maximizing the entire talent pool.
• Resilience: We may have been knocked down, but we are not knocked out. Hospitality and tourism represent one-third of our regional economy. It can return and will return. Creating a safe clean and welcoming environment that will attract more visitors means investing in human capital and technology to set the standard for the hospitality and tourism industry. Likewise, maximizing the technological competitiveness that our region boasts will launch us forward. These industries as well as medicine and education will generate jobs for people at all levels of education and opportunities for small businesses if we dare to rise to the challenge.
The 5 Rs — Recognition, Recovery, Reimagining, Reform and Resilience — are the blueprint for a new dialogue, a strategic path forward that includes all of us.
An essential element of ensuring that we bring all players to the table and that we do not leave any business or people out means that not-for-profits must be at the table. We are the voice of small business, MBEs, Women’s Business Enterprises and low-income workers. Enlightened small and mid-market business leaders must also be at the table. Small and mid-market businesses are the biggest creators of jobs in the economy. Together not-for-profit and business leaders will provide our community with the right resources and tools to rebuild. Collectively we can provide the path forward for our region to rebuild.
Currently, disenfranchised voices are infrequently heard at the economic dinner table. In truth, marginalized people are served leftovers from a gluttonous menu of inequality. COVID-19 is the expression of this longstanding social feeding frenzy at the expense of the poor. Let us unite and reimagine a future Delaware Valley of shared economic abundance.