Op-Ed: Small Business Assistance Grants – a vaccine for the economy

There’s nothing like a shutdown to make you realize how dependent we all are on the services and products small businesses provide. Those hot and spicy wings at your favorite restaurant, the day care for your young child, a plumber to fix the leaky faucet in your kitchen or a dentist to make your tooth stop hurting.

On the weekends, it’s the gym with the fancy rowing machine you like so much, the bowling alley where you meet up with your friends and the theater staging a revival of Annie. Not to mention hair salons. Like many other Northampton County residents, I discovered just how important my barber is for my personal grooming needs.

Local shops might be small, but they are a critical driver of our economy, accounting for two-thirds of net new jobs and providing 44% of economic activity. Small businesses give individuals an opportunity to generate an income higher than they might obtain by working for a corporation. They also form networks among themselves, boosting employment in the area as they hire accountants to handle their payroll, rent space in warehouses to store their product or contract with gardeners to trim the shrubbery.

More nimble and adaptable than large companies, society relies on small businesses for innovation. When the pandemic hit in March, and PPE was in short supply, it was a local seamstresses who made facemasks for non-first responders like myself. When the market became saturated, small businesses showed their other strength — promoting competition. It’s why facemasks are now a fashion trend with people displaying their love of cats or flowers or, in my case, the Eagles.

For these reasons, and many others, I knew it was important for the County of Northampton to help our small businesses during this pandemic. It wasn’t their fault they had to scale back or cease operations. Quarantines, shutdowns and travel restrictions were necessary to protect the community. In fact, the closings of non-essential businesses and services likely saved lives.

Coronavirus isn’t only having a devastating effect on our public health, its long-term impact on our economy has the potential to be just as disruptive. That’s why I decided to put $10 million, out of the $26.7 million Northampton County received in CARES Act funds, towards Small Business Assistance Grants. The grants, with a maximum amount of $15,000 per business, can be used for rent, payroll and other operating expenses.

The County teamed up with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce to process applications. The program was so popular, we held four rounds for submission, completing the final one in early December. In all, the County distributed just over $10 million to 766 small businesses.

Recipients covered a wide-range of companies from all corners of the County; from a photography studio in Nazareth to a gym in Hellertown; from an auto parts store in Wind Gap to a personal security firm in Walnutport; from a spa in Stockertown to a food mart in Easton, and from a hotel in Mount Bethel to a construction firm in Bethlehem.

These grants won’t solve all the problems these businesses face — only the end of the pandemic can do that — but the funds will help keep them, their employees and their landlords afloat until the economy improves. Several owners have gotten in touch with me to say how thankful they are to be able to pay their rent, make payroll and restock their inventory. Many described this as the worst year in their company’s history. More than a few admitted they’d been on the verge of having to close until the grant came through.

We are looking for other ways to help these businesses as well. Customers and clients won’t go to concerts or gyms or dance studios until the pandemic is under control. In December, the County sponsored college classes for COVID-19 Risk Management for businesses, municipalities and child care/senior center organizations.

Although a vaccine is on the way, I encourage everyone to continue to do their part to prevent transmission of the virus by socially distancing, wearing a mask and frequently washing their hands. And, if we want our small businesses to survive, we need to support them. Please shop local. If you don’t want to get close to people, most stores and restaurants are offering curb-side service. Consider buying a gift card for those shops you plan to patronize once the virus is in retreat or brighten someone else’s day with a delivery of flowers or chocolate.

We need our small businesses. They are an important resource for our quality of life. The pandemic won’t last forever, but its economic impacts will be extended if we have to rebuild shops, stores and services from scratch, so please support them now so they can serve us later.

Lamont McClure is the County Executive of Northampton County.

It’s time to end the high cost of low wages

Our economy is booming, at least that’s what the economists say, so why then do so many of my constituents tell me they’re struggling to make ends meet?

Northampton County’s Department of Human Services deals with this conundrum every day. The unemployment rate may be less than 5% but requests to Children, Youth and Family for help with housing, clothing, food and basic needs rose 63.23% in 2019. We’re having a mild winter, but applications for emergency fuel assistance are up 4.65%.

We used to call these families ‘the working poor,’ but The United Way has a new term: ALICE – Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. More Americans have full-time jobs, but they aren’t receiving a living wage. This traps them in a paradox with an income above the federal poverty level, but not enough money to meet their basic needs. Currently, 39% of Northampton County families walk a financial tight-rope where the slightest problem might send them into a downward plunge—a car repair, an illness, a malfunctioning heating system, etc.

The monthly household survival budget for a family of four in Northampton County (two adults, one toddler and one infant) is $67,404 a year or $33.05 an hour.  According to statistics published by Lehigh Valley Workforce, the average annual wage in the Lehigh Valley is $47,680 which falls far short of the mark. To achieve a level of stability, where an unexpected bill doesn’t cause a panic, requires a yearly salary of $106,000.

Low salaries have high costs. Saving for retirement or a child’s education isn’t possible. Buying a home or replacing a used car becomes out of reach. Consumer spending makes up 68% of the U.S. economy. Low incomes are a threat to growth in Northampton County, the state of Pennsylvania and the nation.

Salaries in the Lehigh Valley aren’t keeping up with the expenses required to live here. The average hourly wage for a dishwasher is $9.90, $14.04 for a waitress and $11.50 for a hotel clerk. No job is disposable. Companies can’t function without cashiers, restaurants can’t serve food without cooks, and hotels wouldn’t stay open long without bellhops.

People who work in Northampton County should be paid enough to live in Northampton County. With the median sale price of a home running at $190,000, it’s not surprising that the only housing option available to most families is to rent. In the Lehigh Valley, three-quarters of all rents fall between $500 and $1,500 per month and competition for rental units is high.

If people can’t live near where they work everyone’s quality of life is negatively impacted with increased traffic and more air pollution. Even those who ride the bus face increased stress from the long commutes, and stress is bad for peoples’ physical and mental health. New businesses aren’t going to move here if there’s a spatial mismatch between the jobs they can offer and the housing people can afford. And, the more someone has to pay for housing, the less disposable income they have to spend on entertainment or products.

The fallout from the ALICE often falls on our Human Services department with desperate families seeking help with childcare, affordable housing and adequate food. It’s not unusual for someone who didn’t have a mental illness or an addiction problem to develop one after becoming homeless.

In 2017, 37% of households in Pennsylvania could not afford basic needs such as housing, child care, transportation, health care or technology. It is not beneficial for our society to have so many of our citizens classified as ALICE. Low-incomes not only stress individuals and families, they stress communities through the increasing vulnerability of workers and the costs to society of having large numbers of people poor, in ill health and desperate. This stress requires governments to provide more services, but prevention is more effective than any cure.

As a community, we need to insist on making sure every full-time worker is paid a living wage and not look to Pennsylvania’s anemic $7.25 as guidance. All full-time workers should be earning at least $15/hour. Northampton County is taking steps to lead on this issue. Currently, the County employs 1,748 full-time workers at an average wage of $22.90/hour. (County employees also receive benefits worth $9.62/hour in the form of health insurance, pension, etc.).

At this time, only 6% of our workforce earns a take-home wage of less than $15/hour. In our next round of contract negotiations, we hope to get that number below 3% and, in the round after that, we want all County employees to be above the $15/hour threshold.

We’re hoping more Northampton County employers follow our lead in combatting ALICE. Living wages aren’t just good for individuals and families, they’re crucial for a healthy economy.

Lamont McClure is the Northampton County Executive.


United Way. (2019). ALICE in Northampton County: Available online: https://www.unitedwayglv.org/UnitedWay/media/PDFs/ALICE/Northampton-County-ALICE-County-Sheet.pdf

Lehigh Valley Workforce. (May 2018 Wages). LV Wages May 2018 pdf http://lvwib.org/Portals/2/2019%20PDF/LV%20Wages%20May%202018.pdf

Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. DATA LV: The Lehigh Valley’s Data Source – Housing. Available online: https://lvpc.org/data-lv-housing.html

Climate challenge demands responsible action

The news is filled with stories about climate change — rising temperatures, extreme weather events, decreased crop yields — and they all have one thing in common. Dealing with these problems is going to cost everyone a lot of money. The insurance industry is already adjusting premiums to account for the expense of living on a warmer planet and, in anticipation of rising sea levels, the price of homes along the shore are lagging behind those built inland.

Still, the effects of climate change can seem distant when viewed from the Lehigh Valley. As a landlocked county, Northampton will experience fewer ramifications from a changing climate than will a coastal community, but our economy will be impacted. In fact, we’re already feeling the effects. Last year’s weather reduced crop yields for our farmers and the increasing temperatures make for unpleasant working conditions in the landscaping and construction businesses. Eighteen of the 19 warmest years have all occurred since 2001 and there’s no indication that the thermostat will be turning down any time soon.

Global problems require global solutions, but the world has yet to unite on this issue. Knowing that inaction carries costs, some local businesses are taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions. Freshpet, which has operations in Hanover Township, sources its ingredients within 200 miles of its wind-powered kitchen and has planted 50,000 trees. Martin Guitar, located in Upper Nazareth, chooses woods that are sustainably grown and has erected a chiller plant to reduce its power consumption. Crayola has an active plan to reduce its carbon and water usage to achieve zero landfill.

Like any other crisis, climate change offers both challenges and opportunities to the corporate world. Taking a position for environmental advocacy can be good for business. However, for governments it’s complicated. All expenditures have to be justified to an often skeptical public.

Charging stations for electric vehicles are an easy sell when they’re paid for with a state grant. We’ll install three of those at county buildings this summer. Retrofitting an old property can be prohibitively expensive, but a case can be made for putting solar panels on the roof of our new forensic center.

On May 15, the county held its first ever climate summit. Over 130 people attended the event, held at Lehigh University, to learn what effects climate change will have on our area and what steps we can take to mitigate the damage.

We can’t do much about decisions made in the past, but we can get creative about the choices we make in the present. For instance, forming an alliance with a private company to obtain funding for projects that are beneficial to the public. The county matched a $1.4 million alternative clean energy grant for the construction of a 520-kilowatt, zero-emissions hydro facility in Hugh Moore Park with New England Hydropower LLC. Our extensive dam and canal system presents a great opportunity to produce renewable power to our residents and this project will have economic opportunities for local construction firms.

In the interest of saving trees, as well as the county’s very valuable storage space, we are moving to a paperless system. Our Department of Corrections went paperless in May with others soon to follow. It is my intention to have all county departments functioning on a paperless system by 2025.

Our Parks and Recreation Department is changing how it manages county-owned land by mowing less to create naturalized areas for wildlife. This will also improve air quality and help absorb rain. The Conservation District is educating municipalities on installing riparian buffers along streams to mitigate the damage from floods (As an added bonus for our sportsmen and -women, the shade cast by the plantings increases the habitats for fish).

Out of all the natural hazards, flooding is the greatest threat to Pennsylvania, causing an estimated $91.6 million per year in losses from 1996 to 2014. The county is working to educate municipalities on how to handle their stormwater runoff.

Northampton County cannot solve the problem of climate change on our own and neither can our local environmentally conscious businesses, but that does not absolve us from doing what we can with what we have.

Eventually the world will catch up with us.

Lamont McClure is the county executive of Northampton County.