Spring is in the air…a massive legislative package has passed through Congress, checks are on their way to people who really need them…and as a result, many of us are starting to talk and think about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ of COVID-19. Though there remain serious risks and challenges to overcome, it seems right that at least some of our civic and public leadership are pivoting to focus on where we go from here.
I have written before about my belief that we can do better than in previous recoveries: from the burst of the dot.com bubble; from the Great Recession, just to name the two most recent recoveries. In both those cases it must be acknowledged that the policy and market choices made drove economic and social stratification even farther into our society. A percentage of us not only recovered but became wealthier (or at least more secure); a very small number of us created a whole new level of wealth, harkening back to the stratifications created in the emergence of the industrial age. But too, too many of us were on the losing end of those recoveries: wage growth was less than the rising costs of health care, post-secondary education, housing and access to technology. The frustrations of working hard but losing ground toward economic security must be acknowledged as key contributors to what we are now experiencing around us: alienation, anti-government affiliations, violent crime, drug overuse…the unhealthy coping consequences go on and on.
We must do better coming out of this pandemic if we intend to ‘lift all boats.’
It will not be easy – and in fact, it may create extremely divisive dynamics that will reverberate for a generation. We have learned that recovery on Wall Street doesn’t mean recovery for so many businesses, communities and families. We need to find new ways to define what recovery looks like and discover new paths to get to that aspiration. And as much as we will need transformational leaders in the public sector, we will also need acceptance of transformation in how businesses and civic leaders use the power and influence they wield.
Examples: How should we address the intractable challenge of funding post-secondary education opportunities, at a time when preparing the next generation of workers and leaders for a fast-changing world could not be more urgent for employers? Who should be working to ensure that employees of health care providers and insurance companies can afford their own premiums and deductibles? Who has responsibility to reverse the trend of executive compensation in publicly traded companies that has created such distance between top executives and their first-line employees that being on the ‘same team’ is fiction? There is a long list of systemic changes that confront any aspirations for equitable recovery.
Those of us who have come through the last recoveries in a strengthened position need to be prepared to be investors in the future of all our fellow citizens. I confess to be impressed and inspired by the outlines of the Biden administration’s plans, even though I cannot quite yet imagine how much more I will be asked to pay to support it. But I am encouraged by the sense that, perhaps, we are starting to be honest about the real nature of the challenge that we face: our economic strength as a nation has been achieved on a fundamentally unfair playing field, creating fault lines and vulnerabilities that we must address. There have been parallel efforts in the course of our nation’s history, moments when leaders rose up to acknowledge inequity and reset the rules, striving for fairness. It is our turn. Let’s get ready to build a more equitable and sustainable future.