Small businesses are a continuing source of dynamism for the American economy. They produced three-fourths of the economy's new jobs between 1990 and 1995, an even larger contribution to employment growth than they made in the 1980s. They also represent an entry point into the economy for new groups. Women, for instance, participate heavily in small businesses. The number of female-owned businesses climbed by 89 percent, to an estimated 8.1 million, between 1987 and 1997, and women-owned sole proprietorships were expected to reach 35 percent of all such ventures by the year 2000. Small firms also tend to hire a greater number of older workers and people who prefer to work part-time.
A particular strength of small businesses is their ability to respond quickly to changing economic conditions. They often know their customers personally and are especially suited to meet local needs. Small businesses -- computer-related ventures in California's "Silicon Valley" and other high-tech enclaves, for instance -- are a source of technical innovation. Many computer-industry innovators began as "tinkerers," working on hand-assembled machines in their garages, and quickly grew into large, powerful corporations. Small companies that rapidly became major players in the national and international economies include the computer software company Microsoft; the package delivery service Federal Express; sports clothing manufacturer Nike; the computer networking firm America OnLine; and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's.
Of course, many small businesses fail. But in the United States, a business failure does not carry the social stigma it does in some countries. Often, failure is seen as a valuable learning experience for the entrepreneur, who may succeed on a later try. Failures demonstrate how market forces work to foster greater efficiency, economists say.
The high regard that people hold for small business translates into considerable lobbying clout for small firms in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. Small companies have won exemptions from many federal regulations, such as health and safety rules. Congress also created the Small Business Administration in 1953 to provide professional expertise and financial assistance (35 percent of federal dollars award for contracts is set aside for small businesses) to persons wishing to form or run small businesses. In a typical year, the SBA guarantees $10,000 million in loans to small businesses, usually for working capital or the purchase of buildings, machinery, and equipment. SBA-backed small business investment companies invest another $2,000 million as venture capital.
The SBA seeks to support programs for minorities, especially African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans. It runs an aggressive program to identify markets and joint-venture opportunities for small businesses that have export potential. In addition, the agency sponsors a program in which retired entrepreneurs offer management assistance for new or faltering businesses. Working with individual state agencies and universities, the SBA also operates about 900 Small Business Development Centers that provide technical and management assistance.
In addition, the SBA has made over $26,000 million in low-interest loans to homeowners, renters, and businesses of all sizes suffering losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters.
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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.