Dispersed or Concentrated? Urban Distributions of Ethnic Retail Entrepreneurs: the Late Nineteenth-Century USA

Past research shows that ethnic minority groups’ self-employment opportunities tend to be spatially concentrated. Yet, such research has not fully investigated the extent to which the concentration of these opportunities differs among mainstream and non-mainstream ethnic groups. The present study fills this void, analyzing Census data on retail entrepreneurship in the late nineteenth-century USA. The findings show that ethnic groups’ retail enterprise opportunities decline precipitously across cities, often exponentially or in a manner resembling the Pareto curve. The results further indicate that the decline is particularly steep for blacks and for Southern, Central, and Eastern European immigrant groups. Overall, the evidence suggests that non-mainstream groups’ retail enterprise opportunities are concentrated into a relatively narrow segment of the urban-place distribution, casting doubt on assertions that such groups can realistically use self-employment to gain an economic foothold in a large society like the US.

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