Starting to Bring Back Main Street

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

The one thing we know for sure about our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is that things will be different. Like Yeats’ rough beast, we will slowly slouch toward a New Normal. There are things that we can reasonably predict will happen along the way, but for now we do not know what’s at path’s end. In the next few posts I’m going to look at recovery. As the title implies, I see recovery as bringing back the Main Streets in our communities; regaining some stability and control in our lives in more resilient communities.

Recently I stumbled across a definition of resilience as purposeful action to achieve positive change. When I define victory as more resilient communities, what I’m saying is that the goal should be to rebuild communities so that they are better able to make good things happen for their members. “Building back better” shouldn’t only apply to buildings and bridges but to all of the tangibles and intangibles that are a part of our communities. To do this, we will have to reestablish community capital; all kinds of community capital.

Central to rebuilding community capital is rebuilding the capital of individuals, families and neighborhoods. Over the last decade we’ve heard a lot about income inequality, but too little about wealth. It’s estimated that about 39% of Americans have sufficient savings to deal with an $1,000 emergency. When these emergencies inevitably occur, those affected must rely on others to help them make it through: they must have social capital to cope. The question becomes “how do we help them build their capital accounts so that they can better cope with emergencies?”

Because recovery means looking at all types of community capital, I’m breaking this into several parts. In this first part, like the Confucian mechanic, I’m doing my due diligence – sharpening my tools (and wits – both of them) for what’s to come: defining the goal, and trying to see where we’ll be when the fog of our war with the virus clears.

• First, time. We can’t know when this first wave will end, but my best guess – and hope that I’m too pessimistic – is that we’ll be able to really begin on the recovery by the 4th of July. If we accept the rule of thumb that full recovery will take ten times as long as the period of loss, that means five years! There is likely to be a second wave come fall; we should be much better prepared to contain the damage to our communities than we were for this first round.

• Next, the economy. Unfortunately, the recently passed “Stimulus” bill won’t stimulate the economy very much; at best, it will allow many working people to stabilize their living arrangements – mortgages or rents, keeping food on the table. Small businesses and their employees will be the most likely to suffer. A study by the JP Morgan Chase Institute found that the 50% of small businesses had only enough cash to last 27 days. The picture was even grimmer for labor-intensive, low-wage sectors of the economy (restaurants, retail, repair and maintenance, and personal services): the financial buffer of 50% of these businesses was two-three weeks. In my small city, most of the local restaurants have tried to make a go of it via take-out only service. Today’s paper headlined that two of the most popular couldn’t make a go of it. More will follow their lead.

The most fragile businesses were the ones that with the most minority- and woman-ownership. Conversely, capital-intensive, higher-wage sectors (e.g., high tech manufacturing) had over one month of cash buffer. I’m afraid that much of the money allocated for small business loans won’t be accessed – what small business-person will want to take on more debt in a very volatile economic environment? If you’re a restaurant owner, reopening while people are remembering social distancing is risky business.

And, sadly, we’re likely going to see 8-digit unemployment figures. About 20% of restaurant workers already live below the poverty line. About one-third of our workers were barely getting by as part of the gig economy. Undoubtedly the number of cost-burdened and severely cost-burdened renters – and the number of the homeless – will spike.

• Social capital. In a recent column, George Friedman wrote that Canceling social life … cuts against not only the economy but, even more, what it means to be human. Several years ago, a group supported by CARRI* walked through a Whole Community pandemic exercise. One of the things that struck us was the potentially drastic social changes that might occur. Even before the appearance of the virus, we were seeing fewer family networks and, often, almost no contact even between next door neighbors. While many families are soldiering on in this world of social distancing, the bonding and bridging ties that hold our communities together are being further stretched and unraveled; . This is coming at a time of great distrust in our institutions: see the anti-social antics of the Spring Breakers. Once the crisis is over, I foresee something like the social upheaval of the early 1920’s after the Spanish flu pandemic. I also anticipate that both births and divorces will spike! And the elites will segregate themselves further from the rest of us.

• Human capital. The impacts of the crisis on our young people may be the greatest price we will pay, in the long-term. I’ve written before about the problems of youth unemployment; automation and increases in the minimum wage are conspiring to make many of them (esp. young men of color) unemployable. The closing of schools only adds to this. While we are seeing an uptick in online education particularly for colleges and universities, the teachers unions in Pennsylvania and Oregon have used their political power to prevent cyber charter schools from accepting new students. In spite of this, “teleschool” is probably an idea whose time has come.

• Institutional capital. Many of our government institutions have been conspicuous in their incompetence. Closing our borders undoubtedly bought us some time to prepare but – without doubt – we frittered that away in bureaucratic failures. But the rot goes beyond that – our responses to so many of the crises we’ve faced in recent years demonstrates our perverse inability to take action in the absence of a crisis.

Thus, I believe that the national recovery effort will trigger one of the seminal battles in our nation’s history: pitting those who still believe in our federal system of government against those who believe that we must fundamentally change our expand federal power while limiting state and local autonomy. While I want to remain nonpolitical in this essay, our response to COVID-19 indicates that – wherever we are between these two poles – our nation needs to find an approach to crisis management that is faster and more effective.

Once we get through this initial stage of the virus, the real work will begin: rebuilding our economy and reknitting our social fabric. Undoubtedly, some – many? – of the details surrounding my projections of where we’ll be when we begin recovery planning will be proven wrong. However, I strongly believe that the goal is right: building more resilient communities; communities better able to take action to improve our lives. Whether right or wrong, the most important thing is to have a goal in mind for recovery and then to plan and above all ACT to achieve it.


* Jane Kushma, Andy Felts, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, Charlene Milliken and I.

Pretty heavy stuff! On the lighter side, I recently stumbled across an apocryphal letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald on his approach to social isolation during the Spanish flu pandemic.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

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