American Dream deferred: Suwanee florist survived the downturn

Delilah Smith personifies the Great Recession.

The Suwanee flower shop owner rode the giddy, pre-recession wave to $400,000 in sales.

At the recession’s nadir -- most of 2008 -- sales tanked and creditors came calling. Her Duluth home faced foreclosure. She dropped from the middle class.

The recession technically ended in June 2009 and Smith's fortunes began to change accordingly. Her Suwanee landlord readjusted her rent. Long-awaited disability payments arrived. Flower sales rose 10 percent this year.

“I’m doing a heck of a lot better than last year when I couldn’t tell you if I was going to make it,” said Smith, interrupted occasionally by phoned-in orders. “It’s taken a lot of perseverance, but I think it’s going to get better.

She paused before adding, “I have been seriously knocked around. Geez.”

And how.

The recession was Smith.

She wasn’t laid off because there was nobody to do the firing. A small business owner, Smith cut every conceivable cost -- employees, marketing, rent, mortgage, utilities, food -- just to stay in business. Besides, who would’ve hired the divorced mother of a child battling cystic fibrosis, someone who misses work for her daughter’s frequent hospital stays?

Small businesses fill the core of America’s employment life, responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s jobs. Yet they represent an under-appreciated barometer of the nation's employment health.

More than 8 million small-business jobs evaporated during the recession. Smith, who owns Floristique in a strip mall along Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, laid off her five employees. Sales dropped to $154,000 last year as brides, boyfriends and the bereaved slashed “luxury” expenses. Debt soared.

She stopped home mortgage payments in March 2009. She owed $152,000 in a neighborhood where homes now sell for less than half that amount. She sought a loan modification with the bank, but none was forthcoming.

Her daughter, Bianca, a high school senior, has spent more than two of the previous four months in the hospital. Bianca's father covers her health insurance; Delilah has none.

Desperation, moxie, government payments and a rebounding economy saved Delilah, 50. Food pantries put food on her table a few times. In March, she drove to Nashville to enlist a nonprofit to fight for a modified home loan. Government disability checks, one for her knees damaged by military service, the other for Bianca’s disease, added a needed $700 per month to her bank account.

Bartering flowers for car repairs and coiffures proved Smith’s “saving grace,” and saved the Ohio native another $600 a month. Floristique has done an additional $15,000 in sales so far this year.

Small business owners nationwide are increasingly optimistic about the economy’s future, according to a recent study by the National Federation of Independent Business. But don’t tell Smith that hard times are history.

“I see the same people still out of work today. I see temporary workers who can’t find full-time work,” she said. “The economy won’t get better until these people get jobs and are able to buy stuff.”

Smith shares the populist anger that swept the country and dozens of incumbent politicians from office. She rails against the bailout of banks, U.S. corporations that park profits offshore and the extension of tax breaks for millionaires.

A return to a pre-recession lifestyle, Smith fears, is a long ways off.

“I’m not making any money in my business, so how can I be middle class?” she said. “And I doubt I’ll get back there anytime soon with the way this economy is going.”