Let’s come together to boost economy

Former Gov. Mark Schweiker

By Mark Schweiker

America is divided. We see and feel it every day, and one can become discouraged. Then, when we recently marked the 19th remembrance of 9/11, something happened: Americans from all across the nation put politics aside and honored the brave people we lost. We were reminded of an earlier time when Americans came together magnanimously to overcome one of this country’s most difficult challenges.

And we did overcome it.

Now, we find our nation and commonwealth in the midst of another inflection point in our history as we battle COVID-19, racial strife, civil unrest and an economic downturn not experienced since the Great Depression. To overcome this, leaders in Harrisburg and in Washington must draw together, put election-year politics aside and provide important aid to our citizens and local governments. As these policymakers admirably address the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the time is now to implement a strategic series of interventions that can help individuals, businesses and communities to fully reopen and operate safely.

While scientists race to develop a safe and viable vaccine to halt COVID-19, we cannot stand by and wait. There’s simply too much at stake. We must take action now to avoid economic malaise and the prospect of financial ruin for many of our fellow citizens.

State and local governments need financial aid to offset the lost revenues and added spending that have resulted from the coronavirus. Such assistance would keep them from having to cut public services to balance their budgets and would increase the odds of a more robust recovery. Individual aid of $1,200-per-adult checks was just one time; the $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits expired in the summer; and the forgivable loans to small businesses covered just eight weeks of payrolls. But short-term fixes will only get us so far.

The “next normal” (a term coined by global management consultants McKinsey & Company in related economic affairs research) is going to play out over the long term. Government leaders, particularly those at the state and local levels, are best to contemplate and execute more future-focused interventions. Local government leaders could harness the power of open innovation efforts, such as increased investment in education, research and development; challenge grants and competitions; open networks and publicly available data and code; and loan-assistance programs.

Secondly, if we are to stimulate a broad, sustainable economic recovery with new businesses and new paychecks coming from this rebound, we must concentrate on workforce development. There are several state and even foreign programs that can serve as models to lead the national charge, including:

• Ohio TechCred, which helps employers reskill their workers, can be scaled up to create regional talent pipelines to meet the demand of a technology-infused economy.

• Hawaii’s Reducing Unemployment Disruption and Driving Economic Regeneration Program recognized there was a dearth of job-training opportunities for certain vulnerable segments of the state’s population. It provides up to $100,000 to businesses for new employees hired after March 1, 2020, to help offset their training costs.

• Minority- and women-owned businesses warrant special attention if we are to experience a full and inclusive recovery in the U.S.  By some estimates, they already represent 40% of all businesses and are in the position to drive a faster recovery. However, minority business owners are less likely to be approved for capital loans than equivalent white business owners, and women business owners often seek smaller loans, if they apply at all. Government leaders along with business-advocacy groups pushing for updated loan underwriting standards will help remedy this shortcoming.

• Australia’s My Skills has already made adjustments to its national program to counter COVID-19 crisis impacts. The program supports reskilling, upskilling and other vocational-training options, and subsidizes fees. Australian employers looking to land and quickly train new employees can launch subsidized recruiting efforts and training boot camps in the critical fields of computer science, health care and transportation.

Finally, small and large businesses must adapt if they are to successfully re-emerge. Waiting for the government is not wise. On their own, grocery stores demonstrated in the spring that they could move quickly to adopt virus-mitigation measures that continue to this day. By independently establishing shopper-safety and other hygiene standards, these businesses proved they can operate without becoming hot spots of contagion, thereby inspiring comfort and customer confidence. Moreover, their online, direct-to-consumer presence grew and furnished them record grocery sales in the last six months. These practices are the types of measures that businesses — from the smallest to the largest — must emulate.

We cannot afford to waste another moment. It’s time for leadership. Our public servants in government must activate short- and long-term strategies to ensure America overcomes this difficult moment in our history. Americans must come together. As history showed us on and after 9/11 in those darkest of moments – it’s what we do best. ••

Mark S. Schweiker, a former Bucks County commissioner, served as the 44th governor of Pennsylvania.