Who Gets to Make a Living? Street Vending in America

45 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2022


Street vending has long provided those at the margins of American society with the opportunity for economic advancement. A key segment of the informal economy, street vending has low barriers of entry and attracts entrepreneurs who lack the resources, ability, or desire to start brick-and-mortar businesses or work for someone else. Street vending also contributes to the vitality and safety of urban America.

Despite the pivotal role that street vending plays, cities around the country criminalize vending by treating the violation of street vending regulations as a criminal offense. Recent high-profile vendor arrests in New York City and Washington, DC touched off protests and advocacy to decriminalize street vending. By attaching criminal violations to micro-enterprises like hot dog carts or fruit stands, localities place higher regulatory burdens on the smallest businesses in our communities. Criminalization carries with it collateral consequences such as the increased risk of deportation or loss of immigration status. Further, criminalization leads to unnecessary interactions with armed police officers that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations: low-income individuals, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and returning citizens. Street vending provides entrepreneurial opportunities for these individuals when barriers to legal vending are not prohibitive but presents substantial risks when criminalized.

Protecting the rights of street vendors has taken on new urgency during the COVID-19 public health crisis. Many vendors have not been able to vend on city streets or have seen large reductions in business due to local stay-at-home orders. Street vendors around the country have joined the ranks of excluded workers. Unable to earn a living, many have been barred from programs meant to support individuals and small businesses on account of immigration status or because they operate a cash business.

This Article explores the state of sidewalk vending in America. Special focus is given to Washington, DC, which has a small but robust street vending culture. Vending without a license in Washington, DC is a crime, and police heavily enforce this prohibition. The city has had a permitting regime for vendors for a long time, but costs and other permitting requirements render licenses unobtainable for many street vendors.

Keywords: Street Vending

Suggested Citation

Pileri, Joseph, Who Gets to Make a Living? Street Vending in America. Georgetown Immigration Law Review, Vol. 36, 2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4053674

Joseph Pileri (Contact Author)

Mission Driven Finance ( email )

United States

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