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Capitalism at a Crossroads: Amid Uncertainty, Americans Want Companies to Prioritize Workers, Equity & Social Issues, Poll Reveals

2020 has been a year like no other — a global pandemic, the worst recession since the Great Depression and a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. Yet, amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing has become increasingly clear: Americans want an economy that works for everyone and believe that companies have a significant role to play toward achieving this. 

Ninety-two percent of Americans said that it’s important for large companies to promote an economy that serves all Americans, according to an August 2020 survey by JUST Capital, a nonprofit research organization with a mission to build a more just and inclusive economy that serves all Americans. Yet, only 50 percent of those surveyed believe companies are actually doing this. At the same time, many Americans view this time as a period rife with opportunity. According to a survey conducted earlier in the year by JUST Capital, in partnership with The Harris Poll, 89 percent of Americans believe this moment represents an opportunity for companies to hit “reset” and focus on doing right by their workers, customers, communities and the environment. 

Lorraine Spradley Wilson
Lorraine Spradley Wilson

The annual survey — the results of which are released every fall — is conducted using multiple methodologies, including focus groups and online quantitative polling, which assesses Americans’ priorities and perceptions of corporate America and how those metrics change year over year. “It really reflects the voice of the public,” says Lorraine Spradley Wilson, director of investor products at JUST Capital and a 2012 Consortium alum of New York University Stern School of Business.

JUST Capital conducts the survey in partnership with The Harris Poll, in association with NORC at the University of Chicago, one of the largest independent social research organizations in the U.S. It asks a diverse, representative sample of more than 4,500 Americans to compare 19 business issues and rank them according to how they think companies should prioritize them. The result is a roadmap for where companies should focus their efforts to “create a more just and inclusive economy,” according to JUST Capital’s website. 

“Our polling shows that the public knows our economic system is failing them, and they expect large companies to do their part to address the inequities our system has created, primarily by focusing on workers and jobs,” says JUST Capital’s Jill Mizell, director of survey research.

The survey’s 19 issues focus on varying areas such as stakeholders (workers, customers, shareholders, communities), the environment and economic impact. “Pays workers a fair, livable wage” was the single most important stakeholder issue in this year’s survey, and all five worker-related issues – pay, training, health, equity and benefits – were among the public’s top seven priorities.

“‘Pays a fair and living wage’ has been one of our top items for years now, where the public’s identified that that’s really a key area where companies can do better and make an impact,” says Wilson — and she’s quick to point out that doing so is rarely, if ever, risky. “Our research shows that companies that do take care of their workers through paying a living wage and so on actually outperform. So we’re not saying that you need to sacrifice returns; we’re saying that you can meet the needs of your stakeholders on these different issues that are important to the public and still run a successful company.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, other high-ranking worker issues included “protects worker health and safety” and “cultivates a diverse and inclusive workplace.” The former saw the highest percentage increase across all issues, going from being the 20th most important issue in 2019 to sixth in 2020. “Cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace” ranked fifth this year, and according to Mizell, one way Americans believe companies can do better in this area is through pay. 

“Eighty-nine percent of black Americans and 84 percent of Americans overall believe that ensuring a living wage for all workers was the single most important action a company could take for achieving racial equity within their organizations,” according to survey research fielded in June.

The events of 2020 also resulted in a larger majority of Americans saying that companies should take a stand on social issues — regardless of whether or not an issue directly impacts their business operations. Specifically, 68 percent of Americans think CEOs should take a stand on social issues, a 9 percent jump from last year’s 59 percent.

The findings from JUST Capital’s annual poll, coupled with results of polling completed earlier in 2020, clearly indicate that capitalism is at a crossroads. To wit, just a little more than a quarter of Americans believe that capitalism is working for them.

  • 25 percent of Americans think the current form of capitalism is good for society.
  • 29 percent believe it produces the kind of society they want for the next generation.
  • 29 percent believe the current form of capitalism works for the average American.

“It’s clear to Americans that the U.S. economy is not sustainable. Embedded within their attitudes and survey responses is the painful reality of the growing income and wealth inequality that our system has been creating for decades,” Mizell says. “People want to see companies and corporate leadership advocate for workers and the environment, and U.S. discourse on social issues needs diverse voices that can bring balance and common sense to basic human issues.”

Awareness is the first step, however, and JUST Capital works with companies to improve in these areas which the public deems important. For example, the organization recently partnered with PayPal, the Financial Health Network and the Good Jobs Institute to develop a toolkit to help CEOs perform a Worker Financial Wellness Assessment as a vital first step toward understanding the financial vulnerability of their workforce. 

“Our focus is on shining a light, pushing for disclosure and transparency within these companies and helping them benchmark themselves and do better,” says Wilson.

She says she’s encouraged by the quantity and quality of the conversations they’ve been having, noting that JUST Capital is seeing increased interest both by consumers in supporting just companies and by companies in being more just.

For Wilson and her colleagues, it’s not about demonizing capitalism, but showing instead that it can be a force for good. “We’re pushing for a more inclusive form of capitalism,” she says. “That’s our priority — working with these companies to address these concerns and do better.”

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