The Government Is Offering Me $4 Million. I’m Turning It Down.

That money should help truly small businesses and hundreds of their employees survive economically in a crushing pandemic.  

About the author: Dan Wagner is the CEO for Civis Analytics.

My favorite small business in Chicago is a Middle Eastern restaurant called Old Jerusalem. It has maybe 15 tables, and some of the best falafel and garlic sauce you can find in the city. It’s still run by the same family that started it 40 years ago. On a street increasingly studded with the storefronts of chain restaurants and exercise studios, Old Jerusalem has remained a neighborhood institution.

My other favorite small business is my own, Civis Analytics. We are a 203-person data-science technology and consulting company.

We are both “small businesses,” as formally defined by the Small Business Administration. But in a moment of crisis, like this one, we have very different resources at our disposal to ensure our survival.

When the SBA announced the Paycheck Protection Program in early March, I was relieved. Many of our customers were struggling to pay, and some were sick with COVID-19. The PPP would provide a crucial financial bridge for the company as revenue recovered. Like any small-business owner, I saw a chance for immediate economic assistance and jumped at the opportunity. I was lucky enough to have a team of accountants and lawyers who could devote two weeks to figuring out how to apply. We qualified, and we received a loan commitment of $4.5 million. Wow.

That same week, I happened to call Old Jerusalem to see how things were going. Not well, the owner, Ahmed Awad, told me. Revenue had fallen by half, and the restaurant is in jeopardy. I didn’t know what else to do, so I ordered a gift certificate, and after a stream of unnecessary “thank you”s, Ahmed insisted on running to my house, a mile away, to deliver it personally. He had applied for PPP funds through his local bank, but hadn’t received assistance. Potbelly, down the street, had.

We—Civis and Old Jerusalem—are not the same. I am living through a business crisis, but for Ahmed, this is a family crisis. And it will get worse.

Our own research backs this up.

Eighteen percent of low-income individuals—those earning less than $25,000 a year—have lost their own job or had a member of their immediate family lose theirs; only 7 percent of high-income individuals—those earning more than $150,000 a year—can say the same. Fifty-two percent of low-income workers say that they are struggling to pay their bills and afford basic things like food. High-income workers are also cutting back, but they’re more likely to be delaying home improvements (28 percent) and stock purchases (18 percent).

More specifically, 41 percent of people who work in food and dining say they have already lost income, and 35 percent of those who work in retail say the same. Workers in both industries are feeling the strain and facing immediate challenges in paying their basic housing costs. Compare those numbers with the share of people who say they’ve lost income in the fields of business services (15 percent) and technology (20 percent).

Even so, why not just take the PPP money that we’d qualified for?

The first reason I’m turning down the funds is that small businesses like mine have different financial resources at our disposal: equity markets, credit lines, and generous private investors with a surplus of investment cash. This situation is not easy, and the price is high, but we have options we can use. That’s not the case for many truly small businesses.

The second is that it just didn’t feel right. The total value of our loan would help dozens of truly small businesses and hundreds of their employees survive economically in a crushing pandemic.

So what can we do at the local and federal levels to ensure that the PPP is fair? My limited experience suggests a few things:

First, our government should set larger quotas for smaller businesses to mitigate the “first come, first served” effect that favors larger businesses. Second, the larger businesses who do take these small-business loans should be strongly encouraged to pay back the loan money if and when they can, and this money should be immediately reissued to the small businesses that are next in line. Third, local and state governments should proactively reach out to their small businesses to make them aware of the PPP program ahead of time—many are too busy with their current crises to even know it’s an option for them.

I’ve talked with many small-business owners over the past few weeks, and I know that PPP is changing millions of lives. The federal government’s action was necessary; now we need to make sure it’s fair. Our small businesses are America’s economic and cultural anchors, and they need all the help they can get.