NYC small businesses showing their worth

It’s a predictable fact of our daily lives that in extremely difficult times, we search for a glimmer of hope, anything that would tell us that better days are ahead.

So it is the small businesses, especially those in minority communities, which are suffering heavy blows from the demoralizing effects of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Started even before President Barack Obama was elected to the White House, the recession has caused millions of people to lose their jobs, homes and even their dreams.

But two things happened recently that offered a ray of hope: the first was a report on the role of small businesses in New York City. The second was an indication of the continuing vitality of small enterprises.

The Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a New York think tank that analyzes New York’s economy and the labor market, released the findings of a new and important study which showed that immigrants, including people from the Caribbean, are playing a crucial role in the small business sector of the economy.

“Immigrants make up 48 percent of all business owners living in New York City, and an even bigger share of some kinds of businesses that are central to daily life in the City,” stated the FPI — grocery stores, restaurants, professional services and real estate to list a few examples. In many ways, the figure shouldn’t come as a surprise because immigrants account for 36 percent of the City’s population, and 46 percent of the labor force. Driving the immigrant presence in the workplace is the fact that they tend to be in the prime of their working careers and many of them tend to be entrepreneurial. An estimated 45 percent of all people between the ages of 16-64 years old are immigrants, a share that’s well above their presence in the City’s population as a whole.

Small businesses, whether defined as enterprises initiated by the self-employed or those with incorporated status have staked out their own share of the national economy, the same as in New York City. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, minority-owned small businesses, including by Black, Hispanic and Asian immigrants across the land, number almost 6 million; generate $1 trillion in revenue; and employ 5.9 million people. Not bad for a section of the economy we routinely take for granted.

Realistically, though, it’s virtually impossible to imagine what our lives would be like without these firms, some of which people derisively call “mom-and-pop” businesses.

Walk into most small grocery stores, hair-dressing salons or neighborhood delis in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and it would become clear in a minute that the hands of immigrants keep the doors open and provide a valuable service to residents. Just as important, they create jobs for the youth and mature adults at a time when unemployment in many Black and Hispanic communities is sky-high, sometimes twice the national average.

The FPI study brought to light a previously unknown aspect of small business life: that immigrants from two Caribbean nations, Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and Jamaicans, whose native language is English, are in the top 10 of immigrant-owned small businesses. Dominicans are second on the list behind people from China while Jamaicans are in the tenth spot, coming after the foreign born from such places as Korea, India, Italy, Greece, Colombia, countries of the former Soviet Union, Israel and Palestinian territories.

“New York benefits enormously from the rich array of small business owners who are immigrants,” insisted David Kallick, director of the Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative.

We couldn’t agree more.

His conclusion should be a crucial reminder to such states as Alabama, Arizona and to a lesser extent, parts of Georgia, which paint a picture of immigrants as people who take advantage of social welfare benefits without contributing to the larger society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fallacious notion that the newcomers are takers and not givers should have been eliminated long ago but Republicans and Tea Party supporters persist in peddling the myth as a way to block comprehensive immigration reform.

Two of New York City’s well-known children of Caribbean immigrants, Lowell Hawthorne, chief executive of Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill, and Democratic Congresswoman Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn are obvious examples of how newcomers and their offspring can make a substantial difference in the public and private sectors.

Hawthorne, with his company that was launched with $100,000 but is now worth, in his words, “millions of dollars,” has shown how hard work, dedication and access to capital can pay off. Clarke, now in her third term on Capitol Hill, recently introduced a bill in the House of Representatives, which if enacted into law, would give small businesses a welcome shot in the arm. The Expanding Opportunities for Small Business Act of 2011 [HR2921], which was studied at a session of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 2011 Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, deserves to be passed by the House and the Senate because its provisions would open up the federal procurement process to more small enterprises.

Given their place in our communities and the vital role they play, these businesses deserve all the help they can get.

Both branches of Congress should act promptly because time is of the essence for these firms.

View the press release, “Immigrants Make up Half of All Small Business Owners in New York City” at the Fiscal Policy Institute’s website.

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