At the recent inauguration ceremony of Lt. Governor David A. Paterson, several speakers made reference to the plight of minority and women-owned businesses in the state and the campaign promise the candidates had made to remedy the situation. But it was left to Paterson to renew his and Governor Spitzer’s promise to reverse the downward spiral of opportunity for the state’s women and minorities.
“Women comprise 51 percent of the state’s population, but they get only 2.4 percent of the contracts,” Paterson told the overflow crowd at Riverside Church. His remarks were met with the loudest applause of the evening.
Even more disturbing, Paterson continued, the combined percentage of contracts for Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans, who collectively make up 17 percent of the state’s population, doesn’t amount to 3 percent of the overall contracts granted minorities. Something must be done about this deplorable situation and “we will do it,” he stressed.
This promise has become a mantra for Governor Eliot Spitzer and his running mate. They have already formulated a plan to effectively bring down the barriers and to dramatically change the economic environment in Albany. Paterson was merely repeating a commitment that first began to resonate months ago, when he outlined the dire condition of minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs). “I am absolutely committed to developing MWBEs in New York after a 12-year period of abuse and neglect,” he asserted last year and paraphrased again at his swearing-in ceremony in January.
On several occasions during the Spitzer-Paterson campaign, the candidates were questioned about the details of their plan. While it was never fully explained, they did denote four or five targeted areas, including a focus on market opportunities, effective management systems, capacity building, implementing disparity studies and, something they hope to exemplify during their administration, a provision of strong leadership.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, there are 956,114 small businesses in New York owned by women, Black Americans, Latinos, Asians and Alaskan natives. New York has more MWBEs than any other state, except California and Texas; has the most Black American-owned firms in the country; ranks second in its numbers of women-owned and Asian-owned firms; and ranks fourth in the number of Latino-owned firms, the agency reported. While such a report may present a rosy glow, New York still compares unfavorably to states that have taken greater efforts to expand the opportunities of minorities and women-owned businesses. Two years ago, according to the state comptroller’s office, Asian-owned firms were awarded only 1 percent of all state contracts; Hispanics, who represent 16 percent of the state’s population, only received 0.74 percent of the contracts; and women-owned firms acquired only 0.66 percent of the contracts.
The situation in the city was no better. Minority and women-owned businesses comprise almost 57 percent of all construction firms in the New York City area, but received only 29 percent of the prime construction dollars in contracts under a $1 million. However, white, male-owned construction firms, representing a little over 43 percent of city construction firms, received more than 70 percent of the contracts. The figures are even more depressing for Blacks, who represented 16.72 percent of the available construction firms in the city from 1997 to 2002, but received only 1.7 percent of the city government’s prime contracts under $1 million, an independent study reported.
It was this dismal picture that prompted much of Paterson’s outrage during his inaugural address and it was just a more recent turn to a prospect that has been needling him for some time. “When it comes to MWBEs, New York is a national embarrassment,” he told the press, during the campaign.
But to remedy the problem, he observes, does not mean “a call for racial and gender set-asides.” It is, he adds, “… a call for government to require that qualified MWBEs be given opportunities for contracts to develop the permanent capacity of our minority and women-owned business, so that they can eventually compete on a level playing field because, right now, the playing field isn’t level.”
To pursue such reform, to put MBWEs on an equal footing, will be one of the challenges of the Spitzer-Paterson administration. It is something that they both agree is “economically significant … politically significant, and it’s morally significant.”
By Herb Boyd