The bipartisan infrastructure bill is a great start. Small-business owners of color need more

An equitable recovery requires a multipronged approach

Congress is poised to pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, but there’s more to be done to create a more equitable recovery for all small businesses, Busby, Cavazos, Tong and Buttle write.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congress is poised to pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, but there’s more to be done to create a more equitable recovery for all small businesses, Busby, Cavazos, Tong and Buttle write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 12, 2021 at 10:00am

The possibility of Congress actually delivering on a bipartisan infrastructure package is not only welcome news to those who still believe thoughtful, collaborative leadership is possible in Washington but also represents an essential investment in communities that desperately need it.

Main Street, in particular, is set to benefit from these investments. However, as we continue to build back from a generational public health and economic crisis and grapple with the consequences of a much-needed reckoning on racial equity, minority-owned small businesses need this infrastructure investment to be one piece of a larger effort. We need to take lessons from the programs that kept Main Street afloat during the height of the pandemic, ensure the resources get to the people hit hardest and engage leaders across sectors to help us deliver the kind of booming and inclusive economy Main Street America deserves. 

When COVID-19 hit, the economic impact on small business was swift and devastating. Black, Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander small-business owners were hit particularly hard, experiencing higher rates of business closures and deeper revenue losses. But more than a year later, and two major relief packages, we’re starting to see signs of a budding recovery. To gain insight into how diverse small businesses were experiencing this recovery, our organizations came together this spring, in partnership with Reimagine Main Street, to field a survey of over 1,300 small-business owners.

The results showed promising but concerning signs. Thankfully, 77 percent expressed optimism about the future of their businesses, with Hispanic small-business owners the most optimistic at 87 percent. This sense of promise is largely fueled by the availability of vaccines. Yet, 63 percent said they didn’t expect revenue to reach pre-pandemic levels for at least six months, with an even higher share of AAPI and Black business owners expecting a long recovery. 

These insights provide a guide for where further effort can make an immediate impact. As vaccination rates plateau and the Delta variant spreads rapidly, we have to do more to engage communities with lagging vaccination numbers to prevent a backslide. And although the programs included in the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan helped stop the bleeding, targeted investment is needed to sustain our economic recovery.

There are a number of ways to do this, but all require a coalition of leaders working together. For one, advocates and business leaders will play a role in helping get the bipartisan infrastructure package across the finish line in the House and delivering new investments in roads, bridges, broadband and the infrastructure that sustains our communities. But it can’t stop there. Successful interventions around child care, family support, and targeted business relief is an essential part of the equation. One example is the recently implemented Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which provided over $28 billion to keep restaurant doors open but still left hundreds of thousands of applicants unable to receive support due to high demand. Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to replenish this fund and would be a critical lifeline to local, independent restaurants still struggling.

Additionally, as public investments increase, it matters who gets access to those dollars. Relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program proved essential to those who received them, but the data continues to show persistent racial disparities, both in overall experience as well as actual dollars received. A specific, intentional focus on addressing these racial disparities is imperative. That can begin with the largest consumer of goods and services: the federal government. Federal contracting offers a unique way to direct resources to minority-owned businesses, and large investments provide an opportunity to rethink federal contracting benchmarks and policy to prioritize small business and ensure every community has access to one of the largest markets available.

We’ll certainly need partnership from both the government and the private sector to achieve these goals, but companies who want to help do not need to wait for the government to act. For example, PayPal made a $535 million commitment last year to counter systemic racism and close the racial wealth gap with a focus on supporting and strengthening underrepresented minority businesses. They are currently working with our organizations to empower diverse entrepreneurs and identify their unique needs as well as advocate a policy framework that allows for equitable recovery. We need more bold and creative investments like these from other corporate leaders.

Rebuilding Main Streets, Martin Luther King Boulevards, César E. Chávez Ways and Chinatowns across the country will take time. With the end of the darkest days of this crisis in sight, it is critical that we learn from the lessons of the pandemic. As we await House action on the bipartisan infrastructure package, the White House, business leaders and advocates can all act right now to create a more equitable recovery. Main Street depends on these immediate steps for its future.

Ron Busby Sr. is the president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc.

Ramiro A. Cavazos is the president and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Chiling Tong is the president and CEO of the National Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship.

Rhett Buttle is the founder of Public Private Strategies, an organization focused on where the public and private sectors meet. He served in the Obama administration and as national business adviser to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.