Sam Dolnick on the Declining Number of Korean Greengrocers in New York City

by Reihan Salam

As I read Sam Dolnick’s report, I was struck by the following passage:


Instead of taking over the businesses when their parents retire, as some Italian- and Jewish-Americans did generations ago, the children of Koreans are finding work far from the checkout counter, in law firms, banks and hospitals. And parents insist on that, Mr. Lee said.

“They want their children to have a higher position,” said Mr. Lee, who shelved his dreams of studying philosophy to run a grocery, and now owns a supermarket in Flushing, Queens.

I wonder if Korean immigrant parents place a sufficiently high value on entrepreneurship as opposed to credentialed professions. Small-scale entrepreneurship in the vein of mom-and-pop grocery stores is very different from the kind of high-growth entrepreneurship that contributes mightily to overall job creation. Indeed, a high proportion of self-employed people can often be a sign of a fragmented, inefficient service sector. There were 1960s and 1970s era Korean immigrant entrepreneurs who built substantial, lucrative business, yet the cultural prestige of education and the professions remained. Many Korean immigrant entrepreneurs received higher education at home, and they experienced downward social mobility on arriving in the United States, i.e., they moved from near the top of one class hierarchy to near the bottom of another. Small-scale entrepreneurship wasn’t embraced out of enthusiasm, but rather as a least bad option. So the phenomenon Mr. Lee describes is entirely understandable. One wonders, however, if we might be better off if the cultural prestige of entrepreneurship were higher in the Korean American community, i.e., if more Korean immigrant parents encouraged their American children to start businesses of their own rather than to “work for the man.”

This is all a bit sloppy and anecdotal. I’d be eager to find a rigorous account.  

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.