SMALL PART OF U.S. POPULATION, BUT WITH STRONG HERITAGE, IDENTITY
Published in The National Herald, December 12-18, 2015 Issue
Authored by Professor Alexander Kitroeff
Special to The National Herald
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For several decades, the total number of persons of Greek ancestry has hovered around 0.4% of the total population in the United States. Despite the relatively small numbers, Greek Americans maintain a strong sense of Hellenic heritage.
This combination generates a seemingly constant angst about the ethnic group's survival. The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) convenes an annual conference entitled "The Future of Hellenism in America." Several Greek-American organizations consider the preservation of the Greek language not just a priority but also a matter of life and death for the community.
Yet for all its professed concern about preserving identity, the Greek-American community knows relatively little about itself in terms of its demography. For example, the Jewish Americans, whom Greek-Americans frequently cite as a mode of ethnic cohesion, do much better at constantly counting and assessing their numbers in order to maintain their sense of community. Brandeis University runs the American Jewish Population Project; in 2001, Jewish American organizations spent nearly $6 million for a National Jewish Population Survey. Meanwhile, others such as the Pew Research Center conduct similar demographic inquiries about the Jews in America.
Nothing comparable exists for the Greek-Americans. There was a nation-wide Gallup survey of Greek America commissioned by Archbishop Iakovos in 1980. Since then, the only sources for assessing the community's profile are small scale surveys generated by scholars such as the late Alice Scourby and more recently by Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei among others. And for a long time, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese's Yearbook has recorded the number of parishes and vital statistics such as baptisms, marriages and funerals. There is of course the information available from the U.S. Census Bureau, which valuable but too general for any in-depth analysis, not to mention that every successive decade seems to contain less and less information about European-origin ethnic groups.
At best, what is currently available from the census confirms what is common knowledge about the community. The data, such that it is, including a focus on New York City, has been nicely collated by Professor Nicholas Alexiou of Queens College CUNY and is available on the College's Hellenic American Oral History Project website. To summarize, compared to the average in the United States, persons of Greek ancestry are better educated, with women ahead of men, they have a higher rate of employment and higher individual and family earnings and, not surprisingly, a lower rate of poverty. In terms of employment the most common sectors for the Greek Americans are education & health care, professional and scientific and retail. These are barn door-size type of categories that need further processing. Most disappointingly, the census does not measure employment in the food industry where the Greeks are so prominent.
Occasionally, additional information pops up in unexpected sources. An example is an infographic, and eye-catching depiction of statistics, which recently made the rounds of social media. It represented the percentage of small business owners among foreign-born immigrants in the United States Drawn up by a pro-immigration and pro-refugee advocacy group, Migreat, and based on a survey by the New York based Fiscal Policy Institute, it provided the added bonus of shedding light on Greek immigrant entrepreneurs.
Although the overall numbers of Greek-born business-owners were naturally much smaller than those from countries such as Mexico, India, Korea, China and Vietnam, nonetheless the Greeks came out top in terms of the percentage of business owners in relation to the total number of migrants. The survey counted 74,798 persons from Greece in the U.S. labor force and 12,105 or 16% of them owned small businesses by the time they had stayed in the country for a decade, with 6% of them acquiring businesses in less than ten years. Migrants from Israel/Palestine (the Census does not disaggregate the two) had the second highest rate of business ownership with 13% of the total, followed by migrants from Syria with 12%.
The overall results indicate that immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean have a propensity to become small business owners. Why this happens is something beyond the original concerns of the Fiscal Policy Institute, but credit to them for producing much more detailed information compared to that the US. Census is designed to gather. To go even further, and learn more about these Greek immigrant businessmen for example the sectors they are in, their gender distribution, their overall economic clout and their ties with the wider community and views about its future, Greek America would have to get more serious about investigating its own numbers.
Professor Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is writing a book on the history of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Follow him on Twitter @Kitro1908 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org