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The Importance of Real-Time Small Business Data for Pandemic Recovery


Originally published on Medium on December 3, 2020.


by Fay Walker

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Small businesses employ almost half of workers across the country, and many are the retail and service businesses most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. From February to April, the number of active small business owners dropped by 22 percent (PDF). Despite limited federal support through the CARES Act in March 2020, small businesses continue to struggle (PDF), and local elected officials and economic development organizations are grappling with how to best support them through the pandemic. To do this, local leaders need to collect real-time data about what specific challenges their small businesses are facing.

Because Black-, Latinx-, Native-, and Asian-owned businesses are seeing higher closure rates than white-owned ones, leaders also need to hear directly from these business owners to work toward an equitable economic recovery.

For most places, equitable recovery means collecting data directly from small businesses. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Small Business Administration are not disaggregated or recent enough to inform the real-time crisis facing the small business sector today. The limited sources and challenges of small-area business data are described in a recent guide from the Urban Institute on monitoring neighborhood change and displacement.

Two grantees of the Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-19 Response & Recovery grant program, Catalyst Miami and the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI), recognized this challenge and designed projects to collect data directly from small businesses to better understand the needs of their communities’ small businesses.

The LPHI is focusing on Jefferson Parish, which has been hard hit by COVID-19 and related unemployment. One in 20 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Jefferson Parish, and the unemployment rate is 9 percent, exceeding the rate for the rest of the state. The LPHI will survey employees about their employment status, workplace environments, and economic stability to better target support. The LPHI will also interview employers, to explore how COVID-19 is affecting small businesses, what resources are needed to reopen safely, and what worker training is needed.

Catalyst Miami is working with the North Miami Community Redevelopment Agency to identify businesses that serve low-income communities and are owned by people of color with incomes below 80 percent of area median income. One in 12 people have tested positive in the surrounding county, and the North Miami unemployment rate in 2018 (latest available for cities) was 9 percent, 1.4 times the state level and likely to be higher since the pandemic. Catalyst and its partners are surveying business owners to learn what North Miami’s small businesses need and to determine useful benchmarks for small business resiliency.

Catalyst Miami intends to use their data to help businesses better access technical assistance and to direct relief funds. The LPHI will share their findings with the Jefferson Parish Council District 3 office to build a more effective response to the immediate and long-term needs stemming from the pandemic.

Localities can take action with policy tools, such as providing businesses with access to funding and reforming zoning and permitting, to benefit small businesses and the communities relying on them. However, firsthand accounts from small business owners remain important to understanding which policies will address the challenges specific to each place. Catalyst Miami and the LPHI have already learned from one another by sharing surveys and lessons on gathering data from small business owners. Other places can also draw inspiration from these projects on how data-informed business assistance and supportive policy can guide equitable economic response and recovery in their local contexts.

We thank Ahmed Mori of Catalyst Miami and Barrie Black from the Louisiana Public Health Institute for their contributions to this blog post. The two organizations are grantees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Using Data to Inform Local Decisions on COVID-19 Response & Recovery program.


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