Chapter 9: A People-Centered Economy is not Anti-Business

We need to flip the frame from business-centered to people-centered AND we need an effective way to talk about job quality in the South.

When messages pit workers’ interests against businesses’ interests, it’s never a fair fight. Topos research consistently shows that businesses are at the center of people’s thinking about how the economy works – if businesses are doing well, we all win; if they are struggling, all of us suffer. Within this deeply entrenched business-centric mindset, business interests will always win over workers’ wellbeing and power.

We have to flip the frame. And we do this with a simple truth: People drive the economy.  Our contributions, our aspirations, our skills, our work (paid and unpaid), and our spending drive the economy forward. Businesses rely on us. As such, people’s prosperity and well-being have to come first.

We tested this approach across the country and across the South, and it’s a truth that’s easy for people to understand and accept. And as an economic case justifying why people must come first, it gives people the confidence to demand priority rather than worrying that progressive economic policies are fiscally irresponsible.

Is this message enough to turn the tide? In many parts of the country, where the government has a well-established role in working toward people’s well-being, this powerful people-driven economic model can help build support for pro-worker policies and state agendas.  In the more anti-government South, however, an additional argument is key: Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails.

The South is not anti-business, but it is anti-bad business (more on this below).  And by focusing on some businesses and their bad practices, we can both keep the conversation going and provide an actionable and palatable role for government action. Importantly, this message also shifts focus from whether or not people are “working hard” enough to whether or not businesses are treating workers fairly.

Want to dig in? Here’s how and why this approach works:

A. Business-Centric thinking dominates the South; A People-Driven model flips the frame.

Business-centered mental models are a problem everywhere in the U.S., but represent an extreme challenge in the South. Traditions of deference to authority, exploitation of deep racial and class divisions, and cultural anxieties about deservingness have allowed those pushing a business-centric view to run roughshod over the interests of working people in the region.

And, problematically, when this business-centric view is driving decision making, people are willing to sacrifice and set their own needs – and workers’ needs, generally – aside.

“I believe everyone should receive a wage that is fair for the job they perform, but putting businesses out of business to meet their demands is detrimental to local economies.”

  – 62-year old indigenous woman, moderate, AL

Click on the image below to access the video quote:

We claim our power by claiming our role in the economy. Of the three synergistic elements we introduced in chapter 2 (We Need a Paradigm Shift), the first point – framing the well-being of everyday people as the driver of a good economy for everyone – is the foundation:

PEOPLE DRIVE OUR ECONOMY it is our skills, our labor (paid and unpaid), our spending, our contributions, our innovation, our votes and our advocacy that power our economy and the thriving families and communities we desire. It is not just the right thing to do; it is pragmatic that people’s wellbeing has to come first, not last, because all good things flow from people’s wellbeing.

When we claim our role in driving our economy, we flip the focus from what businesses need to thrive, to what people need to thrive.

And, Importantly, if people drive our economy, then it follows that the more people engaged to their fullest potential in innovation, contributions, economic activity, and wealth creation, the better and stronger our economy is. Equity and inclusion are not just the right and just indicators of a moral economy, they are also economic tailwinds.

In a sense, we make the case that a progressive, pro-worker agenda is the true “pro-business” position, in contrast to the current low-road Southern economic model, which creates unacceptable working conditions AND an economy much weaker and less dynamic than it should be.

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-State Survey, May 25-29, 2023

We tested this approach across Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas and the People-Drive model consistently bests a typical Business-First appeal. When presented with the contrast, close to 7 in 10 people (68 percent) across the five states indicated that the People-Drive model is closer to their view.

B. Southerners are not Anti-Business, but they are Anti-Bad-Business

As workers’ rights communicators, we justifiably put forward a range of messages that are critical of business – from anti-capitalist calls to pointing to the differences between small business practices and corporate hijinks. Throughout this range, it’s incredibly easy to trigger the reaction that we are simply “anti-business.” Even the mildest critique is often heard as “all businesses are bad.”

In the South, lax regulation and policies that prioritize business interests are in dire need of correction, but our research shows that the conversation stops once people think we are “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” A generalized anti-business refrain can come off as tone deaf or just sound inaccurate in many regions of the South. 

Qualitative interviews show how anti-business messages clash with a Cultural Common Sense that reveres small businesses and respects the role of big business and their success stories.

“I would like to have good employers, big corporations, if they come here and they have more jobs, especially technology. I don’t see many technology companies here. So if we have some Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, or those kind of companies, if they have some headquarters here, maybe it’ll be more lucrative or maybe appealing for other people from other states to move into here.”

– 47-year-old Asian-American man, moderate, Independent, Pelham, AL

“In the surrounding area, you have towns like Bentonville and other things where they have people coming in from all over the world for these massive corporations. And I would say Fayetteville benefits from that, but it also has a really unique sense of identity in itself in its local businesses and the people here.”

– 19-year-old white man, liberal, Democrat, Springdale, AR

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-State Survey, May 25-29, 2023

Our five-state survey confirms that the people who believe most businesses are good outnumber those who believe most businesses are bad by more than 2 to 1 (46% to 21%).

Only one in five people believe most businesses are “bad” – defined as “businesses that exploit people by paying as little as they can in wages and benefits, mandating work schedules that are unpredictable and are changed with little or no notice, and having unhealthy work conditions.”

But here’s the opening: fully 72% acknowledge that some businesses exploit people, reinforcing the idea that building support for pro-worker policies by focusing on the qualities of employers can get traction. The qualitative interviews support this finding:

“Life is about more than just working.  We need rules in place so that corporations can not take advantage of their employees.” 

– 45-year-old white woman, moderate Republican, AL

“So there’s job opportunities, but the way they treat you on breaks, or overworking, and not paying you enough… To be honest, the streets may be a lot better. There’s a few things I believe they could work on here, like how they run their businesses or corporations not listening….”

-34-year-old Black woman, liberal, Tuscumbia, AL

“….[There’s] a big company in Salina…They’ve been a bad one about taking advantage of people. They keep people, and then they have such restrictive policies on some things. You can’t hardly turn one way or turn the other way. It’s liable to be the wrong thing. So many people get fired, and a lot of it’s unintentional.”

– 58-year-old white man, moderate, Independent, Salina, KS

“….Yes, absolutely it is a disconnect. Johnny Morris brings jobs, but I’ve had a cousin who worked in his call center and when she finally was there long enough to get full time and benefits, they fired her ass. I had an uncle that was a graphic designer and my aunt worked in photography and he treats them both like crap.”

– 55-year-old white woman, liberal, Springfield, MO

The third prong of the proposed paradigm shift – some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails focuses on those businesses that exploit AND provides an actionable and palatable role for government action in a way that isn’t  anti-business, but is instead anti-bad-business.

In the South, where a liveable wage, paid time off, or good working conditions are not guaranteed, people think of these as things that a (hard-working) person must earn, but this recommended paradigm shift puts the focus on businesses’ choice to exploit our contributions and how we can insist on something different. And connecting the dots between an active government, well-regulated business and the kind of economy people want would mean a significant shift in the Cultural Common Sense for the region.

Keep in mind—it’s not about specific slogans. Rather, these are all ideas that can be reinforced and communicated in various ways and contexts to create a new understanding of how broadly-shared prosperity REALLY works.

Missed a chapter? Check out the previous Voices from the South chapters here and stay tuned for more! Questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out: