Winter 2021 – Roadmap For Change
Power in Purpose
Policy Strategies to Build an Inclusive Economy with Cooperatives
By Brett Theodos, Leiha Edmonds and Corianne Payton Scally
The impact of COVID-19 threatens the resilience of workers, businesses and communities with staggering job losses and untold local-business failures. As the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple through the economy, people of color, low-income workers and business owners are being disproportionately affected. To address these problems, federal, state and local policymakers working to make their communities healthier and more inclusive and resilient are turning to the cooperative business model. By providing business supports and adequate financing and eliminating barriers to existing programs, policymakers can encourage cooperative businesses that preserve the benefits of local business ownership, save jobs, and build and sustain communities.
The policy environment—from city economic development initiatives to state enabling statutes to federal tax law—influences how cooperative businesses start up, grow and thrive in their communities. Cooperatives operate in a policy environment designed primarily to address the needs of investor-owned corporations and individual proprietors. Though most cooperatives are corporations, the cooperative ownership model means that policies and regulations, if not well crafted, can unintentionally create barriers that exclude cooperatives or make eligibility and compliance complicated and costly.
In this article, we present ideas for how federal, state and local policy can help cooperative businesses seeking to build inclusive economies develop. We drew the themes and topics from a review of the literature on cooperative policy, 20 interviews with leaders in different cooperative sectors, and insights from a series of roundtables hosted by NCBA CLUSA and the Cooperative Development Foundation in nine regions across the U.S.
COOPERATIVE POLICY GOALS
We start off by identifying some “North Star” goals to guide specific policy objectives and determine what these policies are intended to accomplish. Desired long-term outcomes include equitable growth, wealth creation, and stable and healthy communities. The policy goals we articulate are not meant to simply grow the field of cooperatives—they are particularly intended to enhance the work of cooperatives that promote equity and community power among people of color and people with low incomes. Such cooperatives uphold the cooperative values and principles established in 1995 by the International Cooperative Alliance. These include self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others.
With these long-term goals and cooperative values in mind, we have identified the following four important near-term goals that policies should target:
- Support and incentivize cooperatives to reach underserved people and communities. Policy supports should be targeted to cooperatives that provide resources to people and communities underserved by mainstream institutions and businesses. Such cooperatives often accept lower margins and provide expanded services to meet their members’ needs.
- Level the playing field. Cooperative sectors are at a disadvantage when it comes to federal, state and local policy.
- Help increase the number of cooperatives. In many places and for many sectors, the number of cooperatives is small relative to the number of other enterprises. Policy can address this by helping new cooperative businesses start up, converting existing businesses into cooperatives, preventing cooperatives from demutualizing or converting to investor-owned businesses, and preventing cooperatives from failing.
- Help grow the size and market share of existing cooperatives. Many cooperatives benefit from increased employment (or membership) and higher revenues or profitability. Making cooperatives larger can result in greater market penetration.
COOPERATIVE POLICY OBJECTIVES
Policy is one of the most critical factors influencing cooperatives’ business viability. Some policy supports are germane to all business sectors, whereas others are sector specific. We detail cross-sector policy objectives and highlight some sector-specific examples, though we do not comprehensively cover policy objectives for each sector. Some cooperative policy objectives involve making relatively straightforward adjustments and do not require much (or sometimes any) new spending. Other policy supports are more involved or require sizable investments. Some are relevant for one level of government (for example, incorporation and chartering is a state function). A surprising number can be enacted at the local, state, and federal levels (for example, funding the provision of technical assistance).
Through roundtables, interviews and a literature review, we identified the following six key types of policies that affect cooperatives and that cooperatives and their supporters should focus their advocacy efforts on during an economic crisis and recovery:
Policies that directly affect members, communities, or customers
- Enabling legislation
- Eligibility and regulation
- Financial support
- Technical assistance and training
- Preferences in contracting and procurement
POLICIES THAT DIRECTLY AFFECT MEMBERS, COMMUNITIES AND CUSTOMERS
Cooperatives can better address the needs of people who are working, underserved or have low incomes when policies that affect their members, communities and customers at least allow (if not encourage) cooperative business models. For example, policies that help renters purchase homes, help people set up bank accounts, help families access affordable childcare, help older adults find reliable homecare, or help residents access fresh foods can all include cooperatives. We present a few business sectors as examples below.
Cooperatives are well positioned to decrease the number of unbanked households—people not presently served by banks or similar financial institutions. According to a 2017 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey, 25 percent of U.S. households are unbanked or underbanked, and more than half of unbanked households cited lacking enough money to keep in an account.1 Research shows that community development credit unions enable members to save money and build assets by charging lower rates for their products and providing higher interest and dividends when possible, compared with other financial institutions. They are also responsive to the needs of members and offer financial education as well as lending options that compete with check cashing and payday lenders. For these reasons, community development credit unions are allowed to raise capital from sources beyond that provided by their members. Policies that underwrite account setup and maintenance costs for unbanked consumers would benefit community development credit unions.
Accessing affordable high-quality childcare is crucial for working families and can be especially challenging for people who do not work traditional 9-to-5 jobs. In 2012, the average cost of placing an infant in center-based care was higher than a year’s tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in 31 states. This staggering cost is leading some states to consider new policies to expand affordable care. Legislation that helps underwrite childcare costs could benefit cooperative businesses, especially if it explicitly includes them in its language, as is the case in a Minnesota pilot effort.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 40 million Americans—including 12.5 million children—struggled with food insecurity. These rates have worsened as unemployment due to the pandemic (and responses to it) has soared. To address food insecurity, state and local governments have addressed transportation barriers in rural communities and partnered with food access organizations to provide fresh food in urban food deserts, efforts that can support cooperatives. For example, with funding from the Self-Help Credit Union via the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the Hendersonville Community Co-op in Hendersonville, North Carolina, expanded its services to better serve nearby food deserts. It partnered with a local nonprofit to create community gardens and partnered with a local hospital to offer 50 vouchers a month for patients to purchase healthy foods.
Unprecedented growth in the nation’s elderly population, paired with a cultural shift toward aging at home, is driving historic growth in the homecare sector. Growing demand for homecare and low barriers to entry have yielded new providers. Some providers do not provide employees enough client hours to sustain a livable income and fail to offer benefits, adequate training, and on-the-job supports. Moreover, subpar employment contributes to high industry turnover. Homecare cooperatives provide employees the opportunity for shared ownership and offer better jobs, resulting in better care for clients. In 2018, home care cooperatives that employed caregivers were able to pay $0.54 more an hour than their non-cooperative competitors. Turnover among home care cooperative caregivers was 38 percent, compared with 82 percent in the industry as a whole. Though the nation’s 13 homecare cooperatives constitute a small segment of the industry, homecare cooperatives are expanding.
In affordable housing, the right of first refusal can contractually allow tenants, tenant associations and nonprofit organizations to make an offer to purchase a home or building being sold by the owner before anyone else. This can promote homeownership for long-term renters and help residents in lower-income communities remain in their homes in high-demand real estate markets. As of 2017, 19 states had a policy requiring owners of manufactured housing communities to allow residents to purchase the land that their homes sit on. This can enable residents to form manufactured home cooperative communities and make a competing offer to buy the community from the owner. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s below-market interest rate loan programs in the 1960s and 1970s are another example of the role cooperatives can play in affordable housing. This program made cooperatives (as well as nonprofits and private developers) eligible for loans at a 3 percent interest rate, restricted to producing housing for moderate- and then low-income families.
This model is cited as having made cooperatives more economically efficient and better maintained than other federally assisted rental housing because cooperative members directly experience and control the economic consequences of their individual and joint housing activities. From 1961 to 1973, the below-market interest rate loan programs produced 5,804 low-income housing developments, 642 of which were limited-equity cooperatives. This model can be reinitiated to support affordable housing. Accomplishing a cooperative-specific policy objective is often not enough to significantly affect people’s lives and livelihoods. For example, a pilot program intended to provide technical assistance to worker-owners of childcare cooperatives would have a limited impact if commercial rents were too high for the cooperatives to succeed; the right of first refusal is a limited help to people who cannot access affordable, ready financing; and the societal benefits of worker ownership of home care cooperatives are lost if Medicare reimbursement levels are too low to sustain cooperative businesses. Ultimately, policies that promote cooperatives must exist in an ecosystem that supports larger societal objectives.
ENABLING LEGISLATION, IMPROVING INCORPORATION, AND CHARTERING
State law dictates how entities are incorporated, and states have historically allowed for cooperatives by adding sector-specific incorporation statutes. For example, a state might write a statute addressing the needs of cooperatives that process agricultural products; such a statute would allow a new processing cooperative to form, but not a new consumer food cooperative. However, some states are taking a new approach. Eighteen states have passed general incorporation statutes that are more inclusive, enabling cooperatives of all types to form and operate effectively. Advocates working to pass general incorporation language in the remaining states can use resources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online library of state cooperative statutes. That library allows users to compare statutes and could help standardize incorporation statutes across states, which could help states that have struggled to pass laws enabling cooperatives.
New or updated legislation may be needed to enable freelance, gig and contract workers (as well as consumers) to form cooperatives that would give them control over or capture value generated by their labor. In addition, legislation should enable workers to establish platform cooperatives, which allow the people who connect and do business online (e.g., gig workers, social media users) to coown the platforms they rely on for their work and to receive a greater share of the income that their work generates. Relatedly, policymakers can advantage workers and consumers in the platform economy by enabling them to form cooperatives to bargain with platform and technology companies. For example, in 2018 the California Supreme Court reclassified gig workers as employees. After this decision, cooperative and labor leaders began advocating for a bill requiring app-based companies to treat contract workers as employees. Under the bill, platform companies operating in California would have the option to contract with labor contractors rather than directly employing workers. The labor contractors use cooperative principles and are licensed and overseen by the labor commissioner to ensure they center workers’ needs. This policy could be applied more broadly to support such efforts to empower workers and consumers in the platform economy
ELIGIBILITY AND REGULATION
Eligibility requirements and other regulatory and program-administration decisions affect cooperatives in myriad ways. To advance the “North Star” policy objectives, cooperatives need reasonable and accommodating regulatory environments. Many regulatory policies are sector specific; for example, field-of-membership restrictions limit who credit unions can serve. However, cooperatives across sectors need access to public programs and resources that states could amend to explicitly include cooperatives.
An example at the federal level is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which is intended to expand access to high-quality jobs and help employers hire and retain skilled workers. It asks states to develop plans that address employment and business needs in their communities. This includes detailing rapid-response activities for business closures and mass layoffs, business owner education, funding for small business feasibility studies, and incumbent worker training.These program components, among others, are relevant for cooperative conversions, whereby rather than closing, businesses that go bankrupt or whose owners retire are offered up to the workers to own. The act’s mandates align with the financing and technical assistance needs of businesses that undergo such conversions. However, many stakeholders who engage with WIOA do not understand that its programs can be used to create cooperatives. The U.S. Department of Labor could clarify that WIOA allows cooperative businesses to participate, and the federal government could encourage states to make cooperatives eligible for its programs.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to states and municipalities. This program is designed to invest in community development through workforce development and job creation, affordable housing, and essential services. Cooperatives should be involved more in activities funded by the program—for example, worker cooperatives should be established to address shortages in essential services like childcare and homecare, limited-equity housing cooperatives should be established to address the affordable housing crisis, and consumer food cooperatives should be created to expand access to healthy foods and improve food security.
At the state and local levels, some municipalities have amended legislation to ensure cooperatives can access the same benefits as non-cooperative businesses. For example, New Hampshire amended its property law in the early 1980s so that homes within resident-owned manufactured home cooperative communities are titled as real rather than personal property, enabling residents in manufactured home cooperatives to access mortgage products with the same opportunity for wealth creation as owners of site-built homes. Other states could replicate this policy, along with other sector-specific eligibility requirements or regulatory inclusions.
Although many cooperatives do not need government assistance to form or operate, public subsidy is warranted in settings where markets fail to provide public goods or other beneficial products and services. For example, a market-rate housing cooperative would not need public assistance, but a limited-equity housing cooperative that provides affordable units to households with low and moderate incomes likely would. Public sector financial support can take many forms, including full or matching grants; loan guarantees, loss reserves, or other forms of credit enhancement; and tax credits, deductions, deferrals, or other tax reductions. Financial support for cooperatives can require small subsidies or even be subsidy neutral (as is the case for many loan guarantee programs), and it can also be more robust.
Cooperatives providing essential services have grounds to seek robust public sector funding. The federal government plays an important role in supporting cooperatives, and state and local efforts are expanding. Models of city funding for employee ownership exist in Santa Clara and Berkeley, California; Madison, Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; and Baltimore, Maryland. These cities fund worker cooperatives and the conversion of a businesses to shared ownership. For example, the City of Santa Clara allocated $100,000 to support worker-cooperative conversions in 2019. That support includes a worker-cooperative resource page on the city’s website, funding for technical assistance to support retiring business owners’ ability to sell their businesses to workers, and funding for training for members of new worker cooperatives. Cooperatives can advocate that local and state governments support employee ownership and business conversion to worker cooperatives by expanding existing entrepreneurship programs or creating new efforts.
LOANS AND LOAN GUARANTEES
The federal government has been a significant direct lender to cooperatives. For example, before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, only 10 percent of rural U.S. households had access to electricity. The law allowed the federal government to make low-cost loans to farming communities that banded together to create nonprofit cooperatives to bring electricity to rural America. Because these communities embraced a federal policy framework that empowered rural Americans to invest in themselves and create member-owned utility companies, within a generation 90 percent of rural Americans had access to electricity. Cooperatives can build on this legacy by expanding broadband to communities where internet providers are unwilling to invest. Public policymakers have sought to expand capital access for firms unable to access conventional debt or equity financing.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has historically been the main source of federal loan guarantees for small businesses, though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Economic Development Administration also have longstanding loan guarantee programs. However, these programs have not always included cooperatives, a problem the Main Street Employee Ownership Act of 2018 helped to address. That act updated SBA’s lending practices to serve employee-owned businesses better, created a program within small business development centers for employee ownership and cooperative development, directed SBA to make loan programs more accessible to cooperatives, and empowered SBA to help small business owners convert their companies to employee ownership.
Although it was an important development, the law needs to be refined, particularly to limit personal-guarantee requirements for cooperatives. SBA requires a personal guarantee on SBA products as collateral, in the event that the owner(s) of a business cannot repay the loan. The shared ownership structure of a cooperative business makes this requirement nearly impossible to fulfill. A model for this modification is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which waived the personal-guarantee requirement. Another example is in Berkeley, California, which revised its revolving loan fund to make it accessible to cooperatives. Among other adjustments, the revision clarifies and limits the personal-guarantee requirement for cooperatives. Worker cooperatives in Berkeley can select an ownership panel to provide the personal guarantee and credit report required to access revolving loan funds, rather than requiring every single member to provide such a guarantee.
The federal government has also provided direct support to mission lenders who take on expanded risk in lending to cooperatives. For example, the Farm Credit Act of 1933 created new lending institutions to provide credit for agricultural cooperatives. Presently, other cooperative sectors could benefit from long-term real estate loans and from short- and intermediate-term credit. The National Cooperative Bank and community development financial institutions are important lenders to cooperatives and could play a larger role. Pilots like the Intermediary Lending Pilot Program, a three-year program through which SBA made loans of up to $1 million available at an interest rate of 1 percent to 20 community development financial institutions that re-lent the money to cooperatives, could be reinitiated and funded. In Colorado, an investment club uses a legal structure to allow 100 non-accredited investors to invest in local cooperative businesses. In other countries, more expansive models for investing in cooperatives, such as the indivisible reserve model, can inspire long-term thinking about cooperative funding and survival in the U.S.
Lastly, financial support for cooperatives can occur through the tax code. Though the mechanics differ from those of direct grants, cooperatives may experience similar financial support from both. As with grants, tax credits or other subsidies can fund cooperative start-ups, conversions and cooperative programming. This could include capital gains tax exemptions for people selling a business, apartment building, or similar asset to produce a worker-owned, consumer, or limited-equity housing cooperative (among other types). A model for this tax exemption given to non-cooperative businesses with Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) already exists. Tax expenditures can come from federal, state and local government.
Many tax subsidies differ across cooperative sectors. For example, government could support worker cooperatives with a tax credit for worker-owners to buy or increase their initial shares in their business. In some cases, eligibility for existing policy must be protected rather than created. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 overturned previous policy, making government grants (such as for broadband or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to utility cooperatives taxable income. However, Congress passed the RURAL Act in 2019, preserving electric cooperatives’ tax-exempt status by recategorizing grants as contributions to capital rather than as income.
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE AND TRAINING
Federal, state and local government can all support technical assistance and training for cooperatives. Such technical assistance is sometimes provided directly by government employees and sometimes is contracted to universities and other nonprofit organizations. Technical assistance and training can cover various tasks, skills and content, including financial education, developing business plans, establishing bylaws and accessing capital. It can also help a cooperative recruit and organize members to understand its shared values and vision.
Much of the funding for technical assistance is financed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program, a competitive program that funds cooperative development centers. Established under the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, RCDG helps people and businesses start, expand and improve rural cooperatives and other mutually owned businesses. However, money appropriated for this program has remained stagnant. Adjusted for inflation, RCDG funding has lost roughly 25 percent of its purchasing power in the past 10 years, and more resources are needed to meet demand.
Because RCDG resources are restricted to communities with 50,000 or fewer residents, urban communities lack access to any federal funding targeting technical assistance to cooperatives. The Main Street Employee Ownership Act of 2018 enabled SBA’s Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) to offer services specific to employee ownership transitions, including conversions to worker cooperatives. However, Congress has not approved additional funding for this expanded service. Additional funding is required to enable these centers to provide employee ownership training and develop outreach materials.
There are various state and local models for providing technical assistance to cooperatives, such as the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives. Furthermore, several states fund public universities to provide technical assistance specifically tailored to worker ownership, like Ohio’s Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University. However, a lack of funding limits the capacity of most technical assistance entities to provide training and coaching to cooperatives, and many cities and counties struggle to pay for technical assistance to develop cooperatives that meet their needs. Expanding state and local funding for technical assistance is critical to cooperative success.
In addition to technical assistance for cooperative businesses, a need exists for expanded training for experts in law and finance. Although some communities are well served by people in these professions who understand cooperatives’ unique structures, others are not. Deepening and expanding the bench of experts in cooperative services is needed for effective growth. Universities can help train the next generation of lawyers, MBAs and accountants to understand the intricacies of cooperatives—and the public sector can support that work. To achieve this goal, expanded partnerships between cooperative developers and universities are needed. For example, the University of Minnesota Law School offers a course on cooperatives that teaches public policy considerations; formation, governance, operations and distributions; business model practices, and the concept of a double bottom line that measures social and financial performance. In addition, expanded technical assistance services could provide greater funding for partnerships with experts in law and finance.
PREFERENCES IN CONTRACTING AND PROCUREMENT
Governments have frequently created preferences or set-asides in contracting and procurement for small businesses and for firms owned by women, racial and ethnic minorities, and veterans to ensure they have a reasonable chance to compete for the significant sums spent by the public sector. These efforts are varyingly effective: some are significant and binding, whereas others exist more on paper than in reality.
While not seeking preferences for cooperatives simply based on their democratic structure, it would be appropriate for policymakers to encourage preferential procurement and contracting processes for cooperatives with a clear social mandate and mission, including those operating in underserved markets. Rather than undermining markets, cooperatives can diversify them, such as by encouraging a broader mix of providers serving local needs, as in the provision of food in schools and hospitals.
The policy supports we recommend in this article are ambitious, but they are necessary if cooperative businesses are to reach their potential for making local communities and economies healthier and more inclusive. Cooperatives are gaining attention as a way to remedy the growing inequality and financial instability that many U.S. households face. By building on the momentum of the bipartisan Main Street Employee Ownership Act of 2018 and responding to the economic uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperatives can take concerted steps to raise their visibility, educate policymakers and expand policies that promote an inclusive economy. However, much remains to be done. In the sidebar, we suggest five key steps that can broaden this work.
STEPS FOR ACTION
“Cooperatives within and across sectors can take several steps to advance policy goals.”
STEP 1: EDUCATE AND CONNECT. Policymaking is as much about relationships as information and campaigns. Cooperative businesses and their associations can build relationships with legislators and administrators before approaching them with requests. Increased contact through advocacy, coalition work, and relationship building presents opportunities to ensure policymakers understand cooperatives and what makes them distinct from other businesses.
STEP 2: MAKE GOOD USE OF MEMBERS AND IMPACT DATA. As membership organizations, cooperatives have the advantage of people power, and they can show policymakers that their constituents are civically engaged cooperative members. Furthermore, cooperatives should track and use data to reflect their contribution to a healthy and inclusive economy and demonstrate social benefits across a range of dimensions and geographies (Theodos, Scally and Edmonds 2018).
STEP 3: TELL A NEW POLICY STORY. Cooperatives have a long and impressive history of policy engagement and support (Pitman 2018). That history is relevant and will resonate with policymakers. But cooperatives also need new stories that contextualize them within modern political and institutional infrastructures. Key messaging can emphasize the bipartisan appeal of cooperatives that provide opportunities in rural and urban economies and allow communities to invest in themselves.
STEP 4: COLLABORATE WITH OTHER COOPERATIVES AND WITH NONCOOPERATIVES. Cooperatives can prioritize a unified policy agenda across sectors. Moreover, policy victories are possible through coalition support and partnerships with noncooperative organizations as well on issue-aligned areas.
STEP 5: BE FOCUSED AND STRATEGIC. Given the work involved in running their businesses, cooperatives need to be judicious in what causes they take up. When making policy requests, cooperatives should look for win-wins: policies that are good for them and the broader community. They should also remember to share credit with elected officials for accomplishments and continue to raise visibility.
Whether achieved by specific cooperative sectors or by broader coalitions, policy victories can take forms other than rules changes to new legislation. Ongoing engagement can produce small victories that allow cooperative advocates to refine policy and build on wins rather than solely focus on major legislation. In addition, in many cases, cooperatives can replicate templates provided in preexisting state and local cooperative policies. By customizing existing policies to the needs of specific localities, cooperatives can use model language or common approaches to passing legislation that make success easier.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and structural racism bring into stark relief the need for policy action that accounts for the health and economic vitality of communities in distress. In addition to stresses put on business resilience and community support by the public health crisis, larger economic and societal changes are presenting new challenges. Cooperatives are an important part of the solution. Many cooperatives have benefited from federal policy enacted during previous crises. Responding to economic depression and social strife in the 20th century, cooperatives offered a model that empowered people to solve pressing challenges in their communities, including by providing access to electricity, financial institutions and employment. Cooperatives still face policy challenges that limit their ability to start up, survive and grow. In this article, we have highlighted key measures that will help cooperatives build a more inclusive, healthy and sustainable economy.
This article is an abridged version of the October 2020 report from the Urban Institute, “Policy Strategies to Build a More Inclusive Economy With Cooperatives.” Download the full report here.
Brett Theodos is senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he directs the Community Economic Development Hub. Leiha Edmonds is a research analyst in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center; and Corianne Payton Scally is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. This report was funded by the Cooperative Development Foundation in partnership with NCBA CLUSA, with original funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.