In our 2020 survey – which explores what the public wants from corporate America in this time of crisis – we found that vast majorities of Americans agree that large companies should (a) promote an economy that works for all Americans (92%), (b) build an economy that allows each person to succeed through creativity and hard work (94%) and (c) allow each person to lead a life of meaning and dignity (92%). From this research it is clear that the public thinks that companies have a critical role to play in society: that they can, and should, do their part to ensure that the country’s economic system upholds and reflects our shared values – that we are all in this together, that we each have the opportunity to contribute, and as a result, that all are able to live a life of dignity.
Yet while Americans acknowledge companies have an important role to play in contributing to the betterment of society, the country is split on how well companies are actually doing: 49% say companies are doing well promoting an economy that works for all Americans, vs. 50% who say companies are not doing well. And while the public gives corporate America good marks for how they’re serving their shareholders (69% believe large companies are having a positive impact on their shareholders), few believe companies are doing enough for their workers: around one in three say companies are having a positive impact on the financial well-being of their lowest paid employees (35%), and just half believe companies are having a positive impact on society overall (51%).
Complicating matters further is the economic consequence of navigating through nine months of a pandemic. According to Pew, roughly 15% of American adults lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak this spring, and half remain unemployed. When we look at what out-of-work Americans – those who are unemployed and seeking work – believe companies are having a positive impact on, we find that their degree of optimism precipitously decreases. This group shows significantly greater skepticism about whether companies are doing their best to promote a fair and inclusive economy:
- Just 42% of unemployed Americans say large companies are having a positive impact on society overall, compared to 51% of currently employed workers.
- 41% of unemployed Americans say large companies are having a positive impact on the quality of jobs in the US, compared to 55% of currently employed workers.
- 34% of unemployed Americans trust large companies, compared to 43% of currently employed workers.
While a full economic recovery is still a ways off, data is showing the recovery is shaping up to be highly unequal. Unemployed Americans are disproportionately young, Black, and/or Hispanic, with many living in low-income households. While the overall unemployment rate eased down to 6.9% in October (from 7.9% in September and 8.4% in August), the jobless rate for Black Americans (10.8%) and Hispanic Americans (8.8%) remains high. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are much more likely to agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the country needs a more evolved form of capitalism (69%, 61%, and 79% respectively) compared to white Americans (54%). And Black Americans are much more likely to strongly agree that business can be a force for positive social change (41% strongly agree, compared to 29% overall).
We have much work to do to ensure that our economic system reflects our shared American values of inclusion and opportunity. Large companies have a clear leadership role in promoting an economy that works for all, and have the resources, talent, and innovative mindset to succeed. Corporate America can start by taking action to improve the financial wellness of their workers. There is certainly a business case for doing so, but it’s also just the right thing to do – and what Americans increasingly expect from the business community.