In 2008 we saved Wall Street — now it's Main Street's turn


One of my board members recently reminded me of an often quoted saying: “Adversity does not build character. It reveals it.” I’ve thought a lot about those words as I’ve watched the chaotic response to the coronavirus crisis coming from our nation’s capital. I’ve also seen unbelievable resolve and character coming from unlikely heroes. How we as a nation respond to this crisis, and the way we provide relief and support for those in need, will say more about our country than any speech, tweet, or press conference ever could.  

As the CEO of an ice cream company operating in almost 40 countries, I’ve been stunned by just how quickly our world has changed. The rapid spread of the virus has resulted in the swiftest and most severe economic meltdown since the great depression. Global supply chains have been upended and day-to-day business operations for many companies have been radically altered. Business likes certainty, and this crisis has introduced intolerable levels of uncertainty. 

Far more importantly, the humanitarian cost is almost unimaginable. More than 2 million people have become ill, more than 100,000 have died, and tens of millions of people have lost their livelihoods. Yet the curve on the global pandemic has yet to peak.   


There are many things we don’t know about this virus, but it’s already clear that the most vulnerable among us are also those who will suffer the most. Things will never be the same after COVID-19. The real question is whether we come out stronger, more united, and better prepared for the future. The alternative of reinforcing the societal inequities, the polarization, the dysfunction, and lack of trust in our government is unacceptable.

I believe that out of this moment of turmoil and chaos, there is an opportunity that we didn’t ask for or see coming — but one that we are now morally obligated to seize. We must create a new normal built on a more just, equitable and sustainable economy. 

In response to the 2008 global financial collapse, the same financial institutions that caused the crisis — the ones deemed “too big to fail” — benefited from a massive bailout financed by the American people. It was a corporate bailout for the 1 percent. More than 9 million Americans lost their homes and unemployment skyrocketed to 10 percent. At the same time, the $700 billion bailout of banks and financial institutions cost every working American $4,635. The response to the 2008 crisis was unpopular on both the left and the right. 

Now the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law looks more like 2008 than a plan fit to address the coronavirus crisis of today. The package does have some important assistance for families, workers and small businesses, including a one-time payment of $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples, with an additional $500 per child. But with unemployment rates projected to hit almost 20 percent in a matter of weeks, a single payment is not nearly enough to keep food on the table for many Americans. Of the $2 trillion, just one-quarter goes to individuals and families. 

The impacts of the coronavirus will dwarf the financial collapse of 2008. This time Main Street, not Wall Street, must be the priority. This time our response must be remembered for supporting the people and small businesses that are the heart of our communities and the true engine of our nation’s economy. “Too small to fail” should be a guiding principle that defines the relief and stimulus plans taking shape here in the U.S. and around the world. 


That’s why I am pleased that Ben & Jerry’s has joined an unprecedented group of advocacy organizations, labor unions, faith groups, and a few companies in calling for a People’s Bailout. The People’s Bailout is a set of five principles for policymakers to use when deciding on relief and long-term recovery in the face of COVID-19. It is critically important that policymakers put the issues of wealth inequality, racism and runaway climate change at the forefront. As we build our nation’s recovery plans, we must focus on saving lives, while at the same time boldly charting a path to a more just, equitable, and sustainable economy.  

Matthew McCarthy is CEO of Ben & Jerry’s.