Economist's research cited in bill to strengthen federal minority business agency

Rob Fairlie
Rob Fairlie plans to get micro data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on unemployment and directly analyze it himself for his next project.

It’s not often that faculty research can have an immediate effect on federal policy yet that’s what happened with UC Santa Cruz economics professor Robert Fairlie’s report on the fallout of the COVID–19 pandemic.

Fairlie’s research found that the number of active African-American-owned businesses dropped 41 percent in April, while Latinx business owners fell by 32 percent and Asian business owners dropped by 26 percent. That report was cited in a bill supported by Senators Kamala Harris, Chuck Shumer, Cory Booker and others to expand the Minority Business Development Agency.

His work has received widespread media coverage, turning up in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, PBS, CBS, BBC and more.

“It’s overwhelming,” Fairlie said about the coverage. “I’m getting one or two emails every day.”

He said the attention has become so intense that it is difficult for him to keep up with his current research, including an investigation he is doing on unemployment.

This isn’t the first time Fairlie has done research about racial inequities in business. He has been interested in the issue since his dissertation and co-wrote the book “Race and Entrepreneurial Success: Black-, Asian- and White-Owned Businesses in the United States.” He has testified in front of Congress three times about this topic, and he has often presented his work to groups trying to promote minority causes.

“I’m the nerd in the background crunching the numbers and trying to find out what’s actually happening,” he said.

When the COVID–19 pandemic hit, he knew he needed to shift his research to the economic impact of that crisis. He knew it was critically important to find out what was happening to businesses by race and get that information released quickly. Because of his experience on the issue, he was able to access the right data sets and analyze them faster than others.

His research has been appreciated by the Buy Black movement, which urges black people to buy from black-owned businesses. “I felt some of this work made a difference or hopefully will,” he said. “At least it’s in the discussion.”

For his next project, he plans to get micro data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on unemployment and directly analyze it himself. He was hoping to analyze the data on the 5.5 million recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program loans but was disappointed to learn that the federal government did not collect information on race. “There’s a lot of suspicion that minority businesses were way under-represented in terms of these loans,” he said.

Meanwhile, he, like everyone else, is dealing with the new reality of working from home. He does Zoom calls with major media out of his laundry room with his washing machine sitting right there in the background. But he said that in some way the situation creates some equality since no one is working from a fancy office. At the end of the day, he knows it’s a small inconvenience.

“My distractions are nothing compared to the problems other people are fighting,” he said.