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Adam Zuckerman is the director of the Maine Small Business Coalition.
This Small Business Saturday, it’s more important than ever to shop local. However, this year just shopping local will not be enough to ensure that our Main Streets survive. Small businesses need an ambitious payroll subsidy program that matches the truly existential crisis they are facing.
In March, I wrote that COVID threatened our small businesses. Unfortunately, it has been every bit as dire as we feared. Data from the Brookings Institution shows that over a quarter of small businesses are at risk of immediate shutdown and half are vulnerable to permanent closure.
Here in Maine, small businesses have been hit particularly hard. While thankfully we have lower COVID infection rates than many states, cases are growing rapidly. Additionally, small businesses play a particularly large role in our economy, employing 57 percent of our private workforce, the sixth highest in the nation.
The crisis has hit our service and tourism industries especially hard. Bars, restaurants, cafes, and small retail shops across our state get through our long winters with the money they make in the summer. With stunted summer revenue, many of them will not make it through the winter without federal aid.
As the director of the Maine Small Business Coalition, which represents over 4,000 small business owners across our state, I spend my days speaking with small business owners. It has been heartbreaking to see many of them forced to lay off longtime employees or even lose the businesses that they have spent decades building.
When Wall Street crashed the housing market in 2008, it profited from millions of Americans losing their homes. While big corporations did not cause COVID, if small businesses continue to shutter, they will similarly be there to pick up the scraps, with cookie cutter national chains replacing Main Street businesses.
Why does that matter? Small businesses are inherently better for our communities than the big-box chains that would replace them. They strengthen the middle class, lessen inequality, employ more people per unit of sales, and keep on more employees during economic downturns, pay more in taxes, and keep more money in the local economy, fostering regenerative, vibrant local communities.
So how can we ensure that our Main Street local businesses survive? First, vote with your dollar. Do your shopping — both holiday and otherwise — at local small businesses. COVID’s outsized impact on Maine’s Black community exacerbated by a legacy of racist lending practices have made Black-owned businesses especially vulnerable. Check out this list of Black-owned businesses across our state.
Most fundamentally, Congress needs to stop blocking real small business relief. While the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans have temporarily helped some small businesses to stay afloat, it was just two months of funding for a crisis that has lasted far longer. It is also nerve-wracking for small businesses to have to take out loans in the middle of a crisis.
Small businesses need a solution that provides long-term confidence, that lets them know we have their backs. Instead of loans, we should create an ambitious payroll subsidy program funded by raising taxes on the big corporations like Amazon that would profit from their demise. It would subsidize small businesses to be able to retain or bring back their workers at full wages and benefits and cover fixed business costs like rent, utilities, mortgage, and insurance payments. That is in line with what other industrialized countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark are doing.
The Small Business Administration and the big banks bungled the rollout of the PPP and prioritized big business over small businesses, especially over those owned by women and people of color. Instead, the Treasury Department should deliver the subsidies in coordination with state and local governments, ensuring that all small businesses and independent contractors receive support. As a condition, small businesses would be required to retain their employees with full wages and benefits with subsidies converting to loans if they do not.
This would be much more cost-effective than years of massive unemployment and trillions of dollars of lost tax revenue from shuttered small businesses. More importantly, it would ensure that our Main Streets survive. On Small Business Saturday, that’s all I can ask for.