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Small Business Key To Middle-Class Welfare, Nearly Half Of Americans Say

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The U.S. loves its small businesses, according to a new survey commissioned by the Public Affairs Council. But lately economists are calling such small business boosterism into question. | Getty Images

In case you had any doubts -- given the countless speeches in which U.S. politicians tout their commitment to Main Street, or the vicious battle between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama over who loves the little guy more -- America adores small business.

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults have a favorable view of small businesses, according to new research commissioned by the Public Affairs Council, a nonpartisan trade group for public administration professionals. Of the 1,750 people surveyed by the council, 53 percent said they viewed small business very favorably, in contrast to only 16 percent that felt the same way about large corporations.

The survey revealed Americans are also willing to put their money where their mouths are. More than two-thirds of respondents -- 68 percent -- said they would prefer to do business with “a smaller local company that may charge somewhat higher prices.” In comparison, only 29 percent would rather do business with “a large national company offering somewhat lower prices.” Notably, the preference for smaller and local firms has risen from the 62 percent finding in the group's 2011 survey.

At the heart of Americans' love for small business, the report concludes, is the belief that a healthy Main Street means a healthy middle class. Asked which would be most important to the “economic well-being of middle-class Americans” in the next 50 years, 49 percent of respondents said small businesses would, beating out major companies (19 percent), the government (18 percent) and labor unions (11 percent).

Yet while both ordinary Americans and politicians alike praise Main Street as the nation’s biggest job creator, some have recently called such claims overblown.

Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argues that economic analysts wrongly include small “establishments” in job growth numbers, when they should only be including small “firms.” Establishments, he said, can be units of large firms. “I don't think The GAP, or Apple, or CVS, or UPS are ‘small businesses,’" Bernstein recently wrote, “even though they all have some small establishments that get counted that way."

“The next time someone's crowing about how the lion's share of the job growth is coming from small businesses,” Bernstein added, “ask them if they're talking firms or establishments. If it's ‘firms’ they're wrong. If it's establishments, they're not really talking small businesses.”

Other interesting findings in the Public Affairs Council study (available here) include:
  • 76 percent of Americans say “too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies.” Surprisingly, this figure hardly changed during the recession.
  • “African-Americans as a group are more optimistic than whites, with 51 percent saying the economy will get better,” the study’s authors wrote. “In contrast, one-third (33 percent) of Hispanics are similarly optimistic, and only a quarter of whites (26 percent) believe the economy will improve.”
  • A strong majority (52 percent vs. 40 percent) feel that “the power of the federal government to regulate big companies is a bigger threat than the power/influence of those companies,” though the public’s fear of regulation has weakened since 2011 (56 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • Anti-regulatory attitudes “declined a bit in the early 2000s,” the authors wrote, “but since 2008 a growing number of Americans have become more skeptical of government regulations.”

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