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Scaling Economic Solidarity: The Pandemic, Nonprofits, and Power
by Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a disease can reveal an underlying sickness—and in America, that means our failure to provide universal health care, our marginalization of immigrants and others, and our devaluation of the caring work that makes lives possible. But it has also revealed another basic truth: Our economy is fundamentally built on social connection. Without the ability to gather in shared social spaces—restaurants, airports and hotels, sports arenas, offices—our economy has experienced truly astounding and unprecedented shocks, and the speed of the recovery will depend on how quickly we can safely congregate again.
And while now is the time to address immediate needs—and the philanthropic and nonprofit sector is playing an important role in trying to fill the cracks (or really gaping holes) in the federal disaster relief efforts—we also urgently need to think about the long term.
America will never be the same after this crisis. But will America of the future be primarily shaped by an increase in individualism (think isolation in our homes), hoarding resources (think toilet paper and hand sanitizer), and fear of strangers (think physical distancing and the run on gun stores)? Or can we build on the surge of caring for others (sewing masks, donating to financial assistance funds, mutual aid efforts) and celebrating unsung heroes (grocery clerks, farmworkers, cleaning staff) to create an America in which protecting others as well as protecting ourselves is a fundamental principle of economic and social policy?
Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector can play an important role in building that better tomorrow, but only if we realize that scaling economic solidarity cannot be limited to the nonprofit sector. The pandemic has made clear that the scale of the problems in our society requires systemic change. The depth of our global interdependence requires a heightened attention to protecting all, whether in Wuhan or Watts. And fostering an ethos of mutual caring and support into our economic system will require developing solidarity in another sense—building the political will and power to ensure this ethos is represented at the highest levels of corporate decision-making and political leadership.
Solidarity and the Economy
We offer some starting points to a new frame of solidarity economics in our 2018 publication, From Resistance to Renewal: A 12-Step Program for Innovation and Inclusion in the California Economy. There, we pointed to a range of policy solutions that seem all-the-more-important today. Among them were universal basic income funded by a technology dividend, increased investment in basic science, expansion and improvement of the caring economy, full immigrant integration to bring people out of the shadows, rapid decarceration and reentry of the formerly incarcerated, universal health insurance and portable benefits, social housing programs to insure long-term affordability, industry-wide wage boards to coordinate labor and business (which would be key to a successful and coordinated reopening of our economy), and realigned tax systems that are both more progressive and more stable.
These policies were all driven by an ethos of solidarity and mutuality. But we didn’t just rely on stirring a do-gooder passion for standing up for the less fortunate; rather, we argued that much as in a public health crisis, protecting others and reducing inequalities helps us all—a finding now firmly rooted in substantial economic research.
For example, in our most recent book, Equity, Growth, and Community, we looked at employment growth in the top 200 metropolitan areas in the US and found that high levels of inequality, racial segregation, and social fragmentation actually damage the ability to sustain high job growth. This finding echoes research done by economists at the Cleveland Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund—basically, high levels of disparity are bad for your economic health.
And if our current winner-take-all inequality actually damages long-run economic prosperity, there are key lessons for how we exit from the current crisis. The biggest implication here? Those who insist that highlighting racial and other disparities is just raising “special interests” are getting it wrong; racial and economic equity are key to setting a firmer basis for our whole economy.
Indeed, with a once-in-a-generation moment to refashion our economic rules—who would have thought we would all embrace a bipartisan strategy to run up deficits to primarily protect workers?—it is time to make equity the bedrock of our thinking and policy.
An economics based on solidarity and mutuality can also help us get past old debates about the divisions between public and private sectors. It’s obvious now: the private economy will not reboot unless public health measures are embraced and extended.
Consider innovation, something often portrayed as resulting from flashes of individual brilliance and the investment gambles of swashbuckling venture capitalists. In reality, research over the past few decades has demonstrated that success results from systems of innovation in which there is substantial public investment in basic research and development—think about the internet that is now allowing so many to work remotely—and institutions, such as public higher education and economic development agencies, for ensuring the general circulation of knowledge and the diffusion of new innovations throughout the economy.
In innovation as in many other areas, debates about public versus private approaches to innovation and growth miss the important fact that both the public and private sector are critical in building and sustaining effective systems of innovation. And because of that, the public has a right to its return, most of which is now excessively captured by private actors.
In our current crisis, this is particularly important. With a nearly $700 million collective public investment in coronavirus research, it is critical to consider whether the American public, and especially the most vulnerable, will benefit directly when more effective treatments and vaccines are developed, or whether pharmaceutical companies will hoard opportunities for those who can pay, as we’ve seen in some of the dynamics around testing.
Finally, solidarity economics points to our mutual obligations across geographies and generations. Many of us practicing physical distancing are doing so with an eye toward protecting elderly individuals, who are more susceptible to the risks of COVID-19. That sort of concern for the old will only become more paramount if there are future pandemics. While about 19 percent of our country’s population is currently 65 years or older, by 2060, the share of seniors is projected to reach 28 percent. And while this significant demographic change should lift up the importance of caring for seniors beyond the crisis, the “caring economy” also comprises nannies, childcare providers, healthcare workers, and the many others who make it possible for tech workers and other employees to stay focused on their work and rest assured that their homes are cared for and their loved ones are living fully.
How are we doing on caring for the caring economy? In a word, badly. Care providers are disproportionately women and people of color; they are often immigrants, and they frequently lack job security and benefits. And as the coronavirus pandemic has made clear, the caring economy also includes the service workers who grow, prepare, and serve or sell our food daily—many of whom also struggle with stress, poverty, and income insecurity.
We are seeing in this crisis that we need to keep all those workers healthy in order to make it through. And what’s good in a crisis is good in the long haul: we need to build an economy where family leave is supported, where caring workers receive a living wage, and where the bonds of mutuality now seen as evident continue to take center stage.
Scaling Solidarity Economics and the Nonprofit Sector
So how do we get there—and where does the philanthropic and nonprofit sector fit in?
Since the full outbreak of the coronavirus in the US, foundations have reoriented their priorities to create emergency funds while charities have mobilized substantial resources to support the immediate needs of the most vulnerable. This is clearly appropriate given the severity of the crisis wracking our nation, and the flexibility and compassion that many have shown is to be commended.
But there is also a need to consider why there were such vulnerabilities to begin with, and how interventions today can contribute to systemic change tomorrow. In California, for example, advocates have been pushing for an emergency expansion of MediCal, the state’s version of Medicaid, to include all residents, including undocumented immigrants. It’s needed now, and it would also be a first step to state-based health insurance that is truly universal. Nationally, the stimulus checks being sent in April are a welcome bit of relief, and they are opening up a conversation about the benefits of universal basic income even as the Pope has begun to extol its value as well.
So, it’s important for foundations and nonprofits to engage in the narrative moment we are all experiencing. What was once unthinkable—recognizing that grocery store clerks perform essential work, that our fates are deeply interwoven, and that government is our ultimate backstop to a good society—is now unavoidable. America will surely change in ways large and small, but the question remains whether we emerge with a recognition of our mutuality or return to the sort of individualism, fragmentation, and polarization that has harmed us so severely.
But it’s also key for foundations and nonprofits to recognize that while good ideas, well-told stories, and solid research can contribute to change, the ultimate lever is power. After all, there was solid research demonstrating that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour had negligible impacts on employment and significant impacts on worker income long before the policy was adopted. What flipped that switch was not just a catchy phrase—the “Fight for 15“—but a concerted campaign by labor and community groups that systematically targeted cities, then states, on the way to having hoped-for federal impact.
Similar campaigns to level the social and economic playing field in arenas such as immigrant rights, climate justice, and criminal justice reform have also been driven by organizing aimed at tilting the underlying balance of power. In State of Resistance, we noted that California in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s gave rise to government-starving tax cuts, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and widening income inequality. It now leads in progressive policies not due to research papers but because organizers were unafraid to challenge power, run for office, and take the reins of policymaking.
And that’s the ultimate meaning of solidarity: how do we build power to make change possible in this liminal moment? Already, social movement leaders are beginning to lay plans to provide both relief and reform, but they will need time to think beyond the crisis and they will need support over the long haul. That’s a call to the philanthropic community to follow the mantra of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles, “Change Not Charity.” Investing in change requires a different style of giving and collaboration.
And it’s a challenge for nonprofits as well. Some have long been involved in organizing as well as services, but just as service demands rise, organizing and advocacy must as well. For those who have been forward-looking enough to develop 501c4 organizations to complement their 501c3 activities, there are opportunities emerging at the local, state, and even federal levels. And for all of us working in or with nonprofits, now is the time to be bold in our vision, our policies, and our politics.
As the immediate challenge of trying to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control results in more successes, we all need to set our sights on bigger and bolder goals. If all we are doing is reverting to our pre-coronavirus society, we will have squandered the opportunities of this moment. Instead, we should be building a better economy—one fundamentally rooted in the realization that social connections are fundamental to economic vibrancy and social equity is both morally right and economically beneficial.
In this context, the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors can be helpful by flexibly and quickly filling immediate needs and supporting new innovations, to help demonstrate what is possible. But we need to translate these possibilities into widespread impact on the scale of the problems we face. And to do that will require building the power and political will to turn the possibility of a solidarity economy into real policies and common practice. With this bolder vision in mind, we can all rise from the coronavirus crisis together.Return to Insights & Events