By Bethia Burke, Personal View for Crain’s Cleveland Business
This is impossible advice. There is a need to act, to lessen the impact of the public health crisis and save human lives. To take steps to mitigate the long-term economic consequences of businesses closing and nearly 16 million people filing for unemployment across the nation (with more coming).
I assumed the role of president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, an organization focused for the last 16 years on the long-term, systemic transformation of our regional economy, on March 19. Suddenly, amid a rapidly unfolding crisis, I find myself grappling with philanthropy’s collective response to an unprecedented economic blow for residents across our region and nation. Chief on my mind in recent days: After the immediate effects of the crisis are mitigated, what will it take to rebuild our economy right?
While there are many unknowns, this feels certain: The economic reverberations of COVID-19 will be profound and the burden will fall on already overburdened individuals, families and businesses. This moment of unprecedented crisis is further exposing structural inequities by race and ethnicity and will disproportionately affect low-wage workers. Small businesses are already suffering, and, as in the Great Recession, minority- and female-led enterprises are likely to face disproportionate impact.
This crisis will undoubtedly alter the structure of our regional and national economy. But the core fundamentals of what make an economy strong — attention to job creation, job preparation and job access with equitable outcomes by race and place — don’t change. As the country moves forward with $2 trillion (or more) of stimulus money and tries to minimize job loss, not to mention human loss, rebuilding strategies need to emphasize these fundamentals — factors ignored or underprioritized for too long.
Following the Great Recession, Northeast Ohio’s economy suffered harder and for longer than our peers. This is another inflection point. Northeast Ohio can emerge stronger on the other side of this crisis, but it matters what leaders do today. And it matters that Northeast Ohio learns from yesterday.
Unprecedented levels of investment from the federal government are an opportunity to seed growth in innovative industries and push for relevant skill-building. The real societal consequences of an economy reliant on jobs without basic benefits like paid sick leave are increasingly apparent; these consequences emphasize the need for stepwise improvements in job quality for all workers. The all-hands-on-deck approach to stabilizing small businesses in communities calls for attention to place and long-term asset building to help us build up and reinforce job hubs.
Strategies like these offer the potential to drive long-term growth with equitable access to opportunity and to close — rather than exacerbate — the economic divide by race and place. Such strategies also must be pursued intentionally. Now is the time to learn from other economies that came out of the Great Recession more quickly than Northeast Ohio. If we do, this time we can rebuild it right.