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In 2021, CEOs Can’t Stay on the Sidelines as Income Inequality Worsens

Words by Leon Kaye
Income Inequality

When we can finally take a huge collective breath and assess how it all went so wrong in the U.S. during this pandemic, one tragedy will long stand out: the fact that policymakers told millions of the most vulnerable citizens, and many small businesses who employ them, that they couldn’t work, yet provided almost no support to help them get by during the COVID-19 crisis. The result is a widening chasm in income inequality across the country.

You can see mounting anger in my home state of California, where many restaurants have invested in equipment such as tents and space heaters (yes, north of Los Angeles, it does get chilly here this time of year), only to be told outdoor dining must shut down over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the Twitterati, many of whom have the good fortune to work from home, continue to fret about quarantine weight, running out of baking recipes and asking what Netflix shows to binge next. For the essential workers who are coping with a stressful work environment so the rest of us can “stay safe,” while wondering whether their jobs will even be around in the next month or two regardless of the fact mass vaccination may be on the horizon, such kvetching comes across as tone-deaf.

Further, if you read the newswires, the rush of IPOs and booming stock market easily makes one think that COVID-19 is only a sideshow, not a human tragedy.

But millions of Americans risk threats of eviction, wait in long lines at food banks and face a bleak holiday season. It didn’t have to be this way — after all, our friends to the north and across the pond have received far more financial support to help them get through this time.

According to the research firm CivicScience, a recent survey shows more than 75 percent of consumers are worried about growing income inequality, and almost half of them say they are “very” concerned.

But that angst is largely missing within the C-Suite at major companies. In late October, the Conference Board’s latest Measure of CEO Confidence revealed a score of 64, almost 20 points more than what it measured in August. Seventy percent of the CEOs surveyed felt economic conditions were better here in the U.S., a huge turnaround from the measly 8 percent who believed so six months earlier. Yet while a third of these corporate leaders said they see a boost in investments and spending in the next year, around the same amount said they foresee reducing their workforce during the same period. Researchers at the Conference Board also measured a dip in consumer confidence akin to what CivicScience has found, according to a recent report.

That huge discrepancy in what CEOs now feel as opposed to what many workers are experiencing should have those same executives worried. Using that data as a lens to view the ongoing political divide in the U.S., business leaders will realize they need to stop measuring economic performance by how their portfolios are doing, as it’s clear we can no longer link the equity markets to how the economy is holding up.

Economic angst will lead to even more political divisions, as we witnessed last weekend in Washington, D.C. And as we’ve seen over the past several months, there’s a strong case to be made that political stability is crucial to long-term business performance.

But such an outcome won’t be possible if too many people still feel shut out once we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis — and assuming divided government is still the norm in D.C. for the next two years, there is only so much the incoming presidential administration can do.

For their long-term health, companies will be better off if they look at their balance sheets and find ways to keep workers employed and healthy. The alternative, an angry populace who can’t find gainful employment and have no safety net that allows them to survive, won’t bode well for U.S. society nor the economy.

Editor's note: To this point, the Washington Post has just published a story on how large "thriving" companies are also putting people out of work. 

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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