ByAna Hernández Kent
Alejandro Santiago, membership manager for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, gives his take on the economics of St. Louis’ Hispanic community.
As a senior researcher within the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed, I have documented that Hispanic families typically have lower family wealth, fewer economic resources and lower incomes than non-Hispanic, white families.FRED and the Current Population Survey. Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hispanics had the highest level of unemployment in April 2020 at 18.9%, and continue to have elevated unemployment as of the most recent estimates. Furthermore, despite their share of the population, Hispanics owned only 3% of total household wealth in 2019.
Yet, Hispanic Americans have been an incredibly fast-growing group over the past half century and represent one of the largest ethnic groups in the U.S. (18.5%) today, second only to non-Hispanic whites. In the St. Louis area, Hispanics are woefully underrepresented, making up just 3% of the larger metropolitan area.Hispanics may be of any race. Using the 2015-2019 American Community Survey and author’s calculations. Population share by census tract area can be seen in the figure below.
To discover the challenges underrepresentation poses to the Hispanic community and economic growth, I interviewed Alejandro Santiago, the membership manager at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. Our conversation gave an me an enlightened view of the struggles and opportunities Hispanic business owners face in the region, as well as an increased knowledge about the available resources in the area and the strength of St. Louis’ Hispanic community.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Question: Hispanics make up only 4% of St. Louis city’s population and a little less than 3% of the county’s. What types of hardships does that underrepresentation present to the people that you’re serving, including business owners and entrepreneurs?
Alejandro Santiago: Because of the minority of the population that we are, there aren’t many resources available to the community at large. Not necessarily only Hispanic businesses, but also families. What I’m seeing is there isn’t a lot of information available in Spanish coming from other organizations. The biggest hurdle is language access. The community here in the St. Louis area is also very scattered; there isn’t necessarily a place where most of the community is, like in California or Chicago.
Question: Given those hardships, what kinds of resources does the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce offer to help small businesses?
Santiago: Here at the Chamber, we help business owners from point zero: helping them register their organization, getting a tax ID number, navigating their marketing campaigns, helping determine their menu, prices and business location, etc. The resources that we have are very wide. Businesses may also be looking to hire workers, expand to other markets or network with similar companies. We have a business counselor who helps guide our members through any stage in their business journey.
Question: Are you hearing about positive trends in the community and opportunities for growth?
Santiago: Last year during the pandemic, we saw growth in new businesses and new memberships. The Chamber has helped so many business owners grow, connect and continue to stay open during the pandemic—including how to navigate the many pandemic-related funding resources available. We translated the rules into Spanish to make it easier for members to navigate the information. There has been a really positive impact in the St. Louis region. Unemployment is slightly lower in our communities, and it’s really great to see that. There are a lot of great stories, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in need, which is why we partner with other organizations.
Question: Would you say that the increase in new members has been due to an increase in the entrepreneurial spirit during the pandemic?
Santiago: The Hispanic community is very oriented to being entrepreneurs. There are small businesses that are starting from kitchens, where people are making pastries, donuts and churros in their homes to sell to the people that they can. The entrepreneurial spirit really shows in our community.
Question: In addition to representation and population, there are also gaps in income, wealth and employment. How might closing these types of gaps between Hispanic families and others in St. Louis help the area be more prosperous?
Santiago: The Hispanic situation involves education, whether or not you are an immigrant, the income your household has, and the place where you live. Change doesn’t come from one day to another. Leaders have the power to change, but it is important that we as a community put ourselves in positions of leadership. Representation in places of power is very little for us here in Missouri. One of the ways we can change that is by putting ourselves into positions of power— If we want to see change, we can create that change ourselves.
Question: Those are really powerful words. Why is it important to address those types of gaps today?
Santiago: In order to see change, you have to act now. It’s important for the betterment of our community today, but also for the ones who are coming. Every generation tries to create a better world for the ones who are coming. At the Chamber, our mission is to help families. Behind the business, there’s always a family they’re supporting. When we’re helping a business, we’re helping a family, and when we’re helping a family, we’re helping a generation. Business can be a source for them to have an education, or to have a home for them to enjoy life and create a better region here in St. Louis. When one side of the population is doing great, the whole region really benefits from it. We are really working to make the region better for everybody.
Despite great underrepresentation in the St. Louis area, the Hispanic community is vibrant and innovative. Many new businesses are being formed, and great resilience is evident. To find out more about the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, visit www.hccstl.com. To learn more about the Institute for Economic Equity’s work related to Hispanics and economics, see the resources below.