Turning Hustlers into Entrepreneurs

America can reduce poverty by enabling underground businesses

| May-June 2010

Loretta Harrison is a born hustler.

“I been making and selling things since I was about 8 years old,” says the 45-year-old unemployed mom. She buys wholesale in Manhattan—balloons, socks, scarves, you name it—then loads up a pushcart and sells at retail prices on the streets of Jamaica, Queens. She’s peddled Icees off the back of a tricycle, teamed up with her teenage son to hawk bottled water for a dollar at stoplights, and organized “passion parties” where she brings together groups of women to gab about sex and buy erotic toys. “I love sales,” she says. “For me to have something that somebody else wants and for them to go in their pocket and bring out hard-earned money to get what I have is just—it’s like a high to me.”

Harrison hasn’t worked a traditional full-time job in nearly 14 years, since her eldest son, Malcolm, had a series of seizures in the second grade that resulted in brain damage. “After that, you know, he was a paranoid schizophrenic,” she says. “He’d think he didn’t have enough sugar in his cereal, and he’d run away and tell people we were bothering him. Punch out the windows and stuff.” So she quit her job delivering mail in the neighborhood to take care of him and her then-newborn daughter. “That whole year,” she says, “my Ready Teddy bags were the only thing that kept me going.”

Ready Teddy is Harrison’s pride and joy. It’s a crocheted teddy bear–and-tote combo that she’s been making since 1992. In the past, she’s sold the bags in a Brooklyn craft store for $35 a pop but now moves them herself for $20. “When I had people selling for me, I would charge them $15. They’d sell it for $20 and take out $5,” she explains, rattling off pricing and staffing schemes that have never been written down, let alone put into a business plan.



In fact, Harrison can’t so much as give a ballpark estimate of how much money she’s made or lost year to year on all of her little businesses. She figures that between her sales and her wage jobs—as a supermarket cashier, a newspaper carrier, a crossing guard—her income has probably peaked at $25,000 in a year. “As far as keeping records and whatnot—Loretta’s not so good at keeping records,” she jokes. “Especially when you get the money and you end up having to spend the money to live.”

Whether and how Harrison can actually live off her sales schemes are larger questions than she knows—and ones that may be getting more attention in coming years, as policy makers grope for solutions to the joblessness that’s strangling cities. Unemployment was at 10 percent at the end of 2009. More families went hungry in 2008 than at any time on record—an estimated 17 million households—and the poverty rate reached higher than it has been in more than a decade.