The reasons why small businesses aren't hiring are structural; the dearth of jobs is not temporary, and this is not a "soft patch," it is quicksand.
The low job growth in the U.S. isn't a "soft patch," it's a sea of quicksand. In a nutshell, here's the situation: 2/3 or more of all job growth comes from small businesses starting up and expanding; only a third or less of new jobs come from Corporate America or government expansion.
As recent reports have shown, Corporate America has been on a hiring spree--overseas. From the point of view of globalized Corporate America, why hire anyone in a slow-growth, high regulation/taxed market like the U.S.? It makes sense to hire new employees in fast-growing markets where the corporation is reaping its growth and most of its profits.
As for government hiring: the game of expansion based on explosively rising debt or Federal stimulus spending is probably over. To live within their means, local goverment and related agencies will have to shed jobs, as labor accounts for 80% of government expenses.
That leaves any future expansion of jobs up to small business. But small business isn't hiring, and won't be hiring, for these structural reasons:
1. The high costs of cartel healthcare in the U.S. Corporate America and small business share one millstone: the absurdly high costs of healthcare in the U.S., which have been pushed onto the employers more as a historical accident than out of rational policy.
It all boils down to this: we spend twice as much per capita on healthcare as our developed-economy competitors. Countries from France to Australia to Japan (three different systems) spend about 8% of their GDP on healthcare, and the U.S. spends 18% (17.6% in 2009, and of course sickcare costs leap up every year regardless of who's in office).
5 percent of the population is responsible for almost 50 percent of all healthcare spending. At the other end, half of the population accounts for just 3 percent of spending.
That 8% of "extra" money our nation squanders on paperwork, fraud, profiteering, needless procedures, useless drugs, $250,000 spent on the last few months of very ill patients' lives and all the rest of the insane sickcare system comes to $1.25 trillion. That is a "tax" on the economy which is paid mostly by employers, the self-employed and taxpayers via the monumental waste in Medicare and Medicaid.
The vast majority of small businesses are marginal, and they cannot afford to hire employees when the already crushing costs of healthcare continue rising. The healthcare insurance for an employee with a family can easily exceed $1,000 per month, and more if the worker is over 50. Add in workers comp insurance, disability and unemployment insurance, and the employer's share of Social Security and Medicare (7.65%) and the "overhead" costs for hiring a new worker can equal or exceed the employee's salary.
2. Politicians and employees don't understand small business. How many politicos started a business from scratch and are still running a small business of 25 or fewer employees? Basically none. How many employees understand what it feels like to be skating close to the edge of emotional and financial collapse, month after month?
Employees wonder why their pay isn't rising, but the employer's compensation costs have been steadily climbing for decades thanks to sickcare and other systemic costs. You'd have to be literally insane to hire anyone in this economy unless that employee will pull in so much new business that the costs are justified. Unfortunately, that is a rare circumstance.
Out-of-touch moron politicians think that trimming the employer's share of FICA (Social Security) 2% is going to make a measurable difference in a 100% labor overhead (i.e. you hire a worker at $2,000 per month and the overhead costs $2,000 per month)--what a joke. Great, my overhead per employee dropped to 98% from 100% while my sickcare insurance leaps by 10% a year.
3. Local government views small business as tax donkeys. Local government sees small business as one thing and one thing only: a captive source of extra revenue via higher licensing fees, junk fees, permits, surcharges, etc. Local government thinks small business is captive, but the local politicos and fiefdoms are forgetting every small business owner has an option: it's called closing down, and opting out of the rat-race of higher taxes and costs.
4. Litigation nation. Employees and others can take a turn at the lawsuit lottery wheel, and if they "win" then you lose. The stress alone is deadly. I know many employees think the owner is exploiting them, and that is a reality for undocumented workers and others. But the number of business owners who are trying to do right by their workers far exceeds the exploiters.
Meanwhile, the cost of "protection" against lawsuits keeps rising, too.
5. The "flexible, free-lance/ independent contractor" model of employment which has been lauded for the past decade as the key to America's rising productivity has some serious downsides.
The basic "innovation" here is to offload that 100% overhead expense onto the employee via paying them more as an independent contractor or free-lancer. But that model has numerous structural weaknesses.
-- I.C.s (independent contractor) don't qualify for unemployment, so when they lose steady work there is no backup income.
-- Free-lancers' income can drop sharply but that won't be reflected in any employment statistic; it will only show up in declining tax revenues.
-- Laying off I.C.s and free-lancers is the low-hanging fruit for enterprises cutting back. Based on what I've read and heard, most of these initial "easy" cuts to head count have already been made. So the next wave of lay-offs will be formal employees.
-- The number of I.C.s and free-lancers in the U.S. economy is simply enormous-- semi-official estimates put the number at 10 million but I would guesstimate the real number is more like double that: 20 million, or about 15% of the entire U.S. workforce of 139 million.
--- Many of the industries which supported I.C.s and free-lancers have been reduced to mere shadows of their former glories, and they won't be coming back. The print media industry supported tens of thousands of free-lance writers, editors, marketing types, ad agency temps, etc.--that industry is toast. The "creative" industries like music and film have also suffered huge cutbacks; as the Web has creatively destroyed income streams, then the number of jobs those industries can support shrinks dramatically.
-- "Consulting" is now a synonym for unemployment. Enterprises and government agencies which handed out consulting contracts like candy at Halloween in the good times have slashed consulting contracts to the bone. Many of these consultants had grown accustomed to pulling down $200,000 or more a year; with their incomes now essentially zero, that's a lot of business-class airline seats and fancy restaurant meals which will now go begging.
-- As regular employees get laid off, some will join the already overflowing ranks of I.C.s and free-lancers in the hope that they can transport their skills and contacts into a free-lance income. Some will, but most will be disappointed; principals are trying to maintain their own income and the only way to do so is not hire and not subcontract out any labor except what is absolutely necessary.
Conclusion: do't expect small business or independent contractors to create new jobs--they're trying just to hang on to whatever they have, not expand headcount.