Will politicians answer the call of the small business community?

The COVID-19 pandemic battered small businesses like a tidal wave. The initial shutdowns nearly two years ago were both jarring and devastating. The fallout from subsequent surges, supply-chain challenges and a reduced workforce have further disrupted the small-businesses community.

Small-business advocates have implored Illinois politicians to promptly, and decisively, support struggling small businesses throughout the pandemic. Many policymakers have been receptive to that message. They advocated for programs, such as the Business Interruption and Back to Business grant programs, to provide crucial capital to struggling small businesses. However, these programs were not adequately funded.

The Business Interruption Grant program was implemented in 2020 and provided $290 million in relief to about 9,000 Illinois businesses. While meaningful for the businesses that received support, only about 20% of applicants were awarded a grant. Most eligible small businesses did not receive relief.

There were certainly fiscal considerations limiting the amount of money policymakers could allocate to foster the recovery of small businesses in 2020. However, struggling small business owners were optimistic about the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and anticipated a good portion of those funds would be used to support the small business community.

Illinois received over $8 billion in ARPA funds from the federal government last summer. Policymakers allocated only $250 million for Back to Business grants, underfunding the program given the number of businesses struggling to recover from revenue losses that were beyond their control.

Small-business advocates were working with legislators to secure additional funds for the Back to Business Grant program before the emergence of the omicron variant, and this latest surge threatens to land yet another body blow to Illinois' resilient small businesses.

Given the important role small businesses play in our economy, Illinois policymakers should prioritize putting more federal dollars into the Back to Business program and ensuring those funds are swiftly disbursed to those businesses hanging on by a thread.

Politicians should also focus on legislation that will get people back to work and supplement the workforce. Legislators have been working in tandem with the small-business community on policies that include incentives for small businesses that train and hire those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and individuals who have previously interacted with the criminal justice system.

Occupational licensing reform should also be prioritized so unemployed Illinoisans do not face unnecessary barriers to new employment opportunities.

Illinois politicians must move swiftly so that more small businesses do not fail. Accordingly, the small business community is calling on Illinois politicians to adequately fund the Back to Business grant program and pass legislation that can grow the workforce. We will be watching to see how they answer that call.

• Elliot Richardson is co-founder and president of the Small Business Advocacy Council.

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