By Dr. Jacques Jiha
New York City Budget Director
The following are remarks by Dr. Jacques Jiha, Ph.D., delivered during the Haitian American Alliance of New York’s Power Summit of Haitian leaders in May. It is republished with permission and lightly edited for clarity. It is part of The Haitian Times’s limited series to amplify the voices of Haitian thought leaders whose seldom-heard perspectives might inspire our Diaspora with new ideas to advance our communities and Haiti.
NEW YORK—Looking back at our community’s trajectory over the past 30 years, I see that, individually, many Haitians have made significant progress in the diaspora. We are represented across the spectrum of American life, including all levels of Corporate America, leaders in government, positions of great responsibility in universities, and more.
We have made enormous progress gaining political representation, with Haitian Americans serving in Congress and many state houses. But while many have made progress on their own, most Haitians in the diaspora remain relatively poor. More disturbing is the fact that we don’t yet have the economic institutions and the means to lift our brothers and sisters from poverty.
From my perspective, we will not be able to sustain any of the political or social gains we have made thus far without a solid economic infrastructure. Let’s take stock of where we are.
The positives: We are hard workers. Seventy-one percent of Haitian immigrants are in the labor force compared with 66% of the overall foreign population and 62% of the U.S. born population. More importantly, we came here with a set of values that are hard to quantify, yet have proven critical to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this country. With our traditional emphasis on education, hard work, discipline, curiosity and adaptability, we have the elements necessary to succeed in America.
The negatives: Most of us work in the lowest-paid sectors of the economy. For instance, only 23% of Haitians in the labor force work in the high-paid fields of business, science and the arts, compared to 33% of all immigrants and 40% of U.S.-born Americans. Over 37% of us work in the low-paid service sector compared with 23% of all immigrants and 17% of U.S. born. We see a similar pattern in transportation and other low-paid sectors.
Building wealth in America
There are many ways to build wealth in this country, but the most effective and sustainable models remain education and networking. By education, I don’t mean only going to universities. I mean any education that teaches skills that lead to a good job or to starting your own business.
Aside from learning English, perhaps the most important and often under-rated skill is the American custom of developing efficient networks for landing good jobs or creating strong and dynamic businesses.
America is really a land of opportunity, where high skills command a substantive wage premium and entrepreneurship is rewarded. Research shows that Haitians are learning English and earning university degrees at a higher rate than other communities.
What this suggests is that we value education as the path to a better and more prosperous future; it confers upward economic mobility. I am a big proponent of classical education, with its emphasis on critical thinking and building a foundation of knowledge.
To build a solid economic foundation, however, we should encourage a lot of our children to channel their energy into STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and math) and finance because these high-skill professions command a substantive wage premium that can lead to wealth building.
These fields are not for everyone, but we should encourage our children to enter these professions. They are as smart, capable and motivated as anyone else. They should not settle for any profession simply because they don’t find the STEM fields appealing and require a little more work.
With respect to business development, we are now seeing a renewed interest, with an outburst of small Haitian businesses in New York, Florida and New Jersey, to name a few. We cannot afford to lose this new momentum. We must nurture these businesses so they can grow and prosper.
Spread out beyond our own
We must not repeat the mistakes of the early 1990’s, however. Back then, Haitian businesses were primarily focused on the Haitian clientele. However, as a niche market, the Haitian diaspora is too small to sustain the growth of any serious business.
We must expand beyond the Haitian community to take advantage of economies of scale and scope to reduce costs and expand revenue and profit. Just like Haitian American politicians have built new coalitions beyond their community to succeed in politics, Haitian businesses must do the same. Our products and services can compete with any other products on the basis of quality and taste, so why should we limit ourselves to only a relatively small market?
Building economic power requires serious infrastructure. So, we need strong Haitian American chambers of commerce and other business-minded organizations across the state and the country to support our entrepreneurs.
There are plenty of opportunities available in both the private and public sectors for our businesses to take advantage of. Yet very few have. Let’s take a moment to talk about actionable things that we can do to advance our community economically.
Moving forward economically
New York City keeps doing more to present and grow opportunities. We now have a Chief Business Diversity Officer who has one mission – set up local Minority/Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs) to thrive.
City agencies have recently been directed to award contracts of up to $1 million to MWBEs through a non-competitive method, substantially increasing their opportunity to work with the city and share a larger piece of the pie.
For our aspiring entrepreneurs – they can be directed to NYC’s Department of Small Business Services. They can help business minded folks to create a business plan, register a business and finance that business.
Together, we will make the change our community needs.
I’m reminded of something author Edwidge Danticat once said that I think we would do well to follow. She said, “We must join each other’s causes, have each other’s backs, form alliances. Practice what in Haiti we call Kombit: Today you work my land, tomorrow I work yours.”
Let us remain united, and continue to invest in ourselves, in each other, in the businesses that serve our community, and in the American dream we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue.
May our goal be that the gains of the next generation — political, social, and economic — exceed anything that our generation would have believed possible.
Dr. Jacques Jiha, Ph.D., serves as Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. In this role, he oversees New York City’s fiscal policy, including the development of the Expense and Capital Budgets, the City’s bond and borrowing program, and the budgets of more than 90 City agencies and entities. Read more about Jiha in this Haitian Times profile.