The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. economy have helped increase support for bold public policy interventions that would reverse increased wealth concentration, keep money circulating in local communities, and focus economic aid on small businesses and communities harmed by systemic racism, according to an October 2020 poll commissioned by The Democracy Collaborative and YouGov.
The poll shows that elected officials have a broad mandate to pursue innovative strategies that move the nation toward a democratic economy in which wealth and power are shared broadly.
70 percent of poll respondents agreed that the government should be helping keep small business from shuttering instead of being acquired by big businesses. Also, 67 percent would support government’s help in rebuilding community-based businesses. As the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be driving the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) for the foreseeable future, 72 percent would support a program to foster the creation or growth of small businesses to provide these essentials instead of buying them from overseas companies or large corporations.
One specific proposal now being considered by some local elected officials and by some members of Congress involves the creation of “local economy preservation funds” designed to prevent locally owned businesses from being killed off or swallowed up by corporate giants like Amazon. In our poll, over half of people would support such a fund administered at the local level and at the state level. A narrower majority supports this at the federal level, with the opposition overwhelmingly and predictably concentrated among those who call themselves “conservative” or “very conservative.”
These funds could be structured in various ways, but the essential idea is that these funds, which could be municipal, state or federal, would use public dollars to buy ownership stakes in small businesses and hold those stakes until the economy improves. It’s not a novel idea; the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which was created by the federal government during the Great Depression, was often an active rather than passive investor, representing broad public and worker interests in the companies in which it held stakes. That is in contrast to the way the federal government took ownership shares in failing financial institutions and General Motors during the 2008 financial crash, in which the government purchased equity to facilitate corporate bailouts but did not use its equity position to influence corporate behavior.
In terms of how local business support should be targeted, 76 percent would support prioritizing businesses owned by their employees, 74 percent those owned by community members and 64 percent by people of color. However, only 23 percent would support top-down economic development approaches that would prioritize large corporations and private equity.
Community “anchor” institutions — large entities such as hospitals and universities that are, unlike large companies, more securely anchored to the communities they serve — also have a role that a majority of our poll respondents want to see them fill. In the poll, 47 percent said anchor institutions should buy as much as possible from local businesses even if it cost a little more, so that money stays in the community and recirculates; 35 percent disagreed.
Our poll also reveals several ways the electorate would support an expansion of government at either the national or local level to address specific everyday concerns. For example, 65 percent agreed that federal funding should be allocated for a government agency — not private companies — to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and make it available to everyone at a low cost. Reacting to the digital divide exposed by the shift to working and schooling at home, 71 percent would support “a public option for high-speed broadband internet that would replace or compete with corporate-owned broadband or cable companies to help guarantee affordable internet access.” Also, 55 percent agreed that the government bares the responsibility of creating and providing affordable housing.
Overall, 59 percent of poll respondents said since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic they were more willing “to support government provision of basic services like health care, housing, utilities, and internet” rather than leaving these services exclusively to the private sector.
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Results like this should encourage progressive lawmakers to think boldly and creatively about how to go beyond simply patching the breaks in our current economy to actually remaking the economy in a way that meets the needs and aspirations of everyday people. Even if there are political roadblocks at the federal level — there was plenty of evidence of leeriness of federal power in our survey — many states and localities already have considerable license to create new models for economic growth that build broad-based community wealth rather than concentrated power and give people real power.
When elected officials in the coming months hear the siren song of centrism, which calls for a cautious reconstruction of the economic status quo, they should feel free to ignore it. There is a new economy to be built, and there are millions upon millions of Americans waiting for leaders to help them build it.
Some highlights from the poll, which was conducted on October 7-9:
YouGov-Democracy Collaborative 2020 poll via Slideshare.
- As small businesses continue to struggle to survive the economic disruptions of COVID-19, 70% of poll respondents agreed that “the government should be taking more action to keep a greater share of small businesses from closing or being acquired by big businesses like Amazon.” Also, 67% agreed with the statement that there needs to be “specific government interventions to rebuild the small, community-based business sector.”
- Majorities support using “local economy preservation funds” to protect and rebuild local business ecosystems. These funds would use public dollars to buy ownership stakes in small businesses and hold those stakes until the economy improves. Support for the creation of such funds stands at 54% at the local level, 53% at the state level and 45% at the federal level.
- An even greater percentage, 75%, would support a government program that would foster the creation of local businesses that would manufacture such items as protective personal equipment for local hospitals and institutions.
- In terms of how local business support should be targeted, 76% would support prioritizing employee-owned businesses, 74% those owned by community members, and 64% by people of color. However, only 23% would support top-down economic development approaches that would prioritize large corporations and private equity.
- There is strong support for requiring anchor institutions—large enterprises such as hospitals and universities that are “anchored” to their communities—to buy local: 47% said they should buy as much as possible from local businesses even if it cost a little more; 35% said institutions should prioritize cost even at the expense of sending money out of the community.
- Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 58% of poll respondents said they were more willing “to support government provision of basic services like health care, housing, utilities, and internet” rather than leaving these services exclusively to the private sector. Specifically with regard to broadband, and the digital divide exposed by the shift to working and schooling at home, 68% would support “a public option for high-speed broadband internet that would replace or compete with corporate-owned broadband or cable companies to help guarantee affordable internet access.” Also, 55% agreed with the statement that “housing is a human right, and that the government should be responsible for creating enough housing that everyone who needs housing can find a home they can afford to rent or buy.”
- When asked about federal funding on COVID-19 vaccine research, 65% agreed federal funds should be invested in “a vaccine developed by a federal agency that would be available to everyone at a minimal cost,” instead of the current practice of directing spending to private companies, who could then set the price and profit margin for the vaccine.
- If a fossil fuel company faced bankruptcy and approached the federal government for a bailout, 50% would support conditioning that aid on a requirement that the company “shift [its] production to 100% renewable energy as quickly as reasonably possible.”
- Some specific restorative justice actions to address systemic racism have broad majority support. They include Increase investment in Black community institutions and historically Black colleges (61%); requiring companies to adopt specific diversity, equity and inclusion practices (53%); and requiring financial institutions to increase investment in Black communities (52%).
The poll is based on online interviews of 1,054 registered voters and has a margin of error of ±4%.