Urban Research Monitor
Limited Impact on the Poor

Howells is not persuaded that microenterprise programs, regardless of how they are structured, can help the poor, whom she defines in her article as welfare dependent. She believes that the de facto circumstances of welfare recipients—including little or no savings, limited education and skills, and childcare responsibilities—make it almost impossible for all but the most extraordinary individuals to succeed in starting a small business. In her opinion, current microenterprise programs, while filling a significant credit gap, are actually helping small business owners who already have substantial resources.

Howells supports her views with data from published studies. For example, she cites studies that have found that the Small Business Administration's (SBA's) microloan program—the largest single source of funding for microloans in the country—reaches relatively few people who are below the poverty line. In fact, the SBA has no established income guidelines even though the initial impetus for the program included the alleviation of poverty. She argues that microcredit programs currently emphasize overall fund performance, but factors that measure fund performance do not measure improvements in peoples' lives.

To support her argument that microloans may be wasted on the welfare dependent, Howells points to studies that show a high correlation between a small business' survival and the owner's education, access to capital, and ability to devote time to the business; successful entrepreneurs and welfare-dependent people are statistically distinct groups. She says that Americans want to believe that we can give a small loan to anyone and make that person an entrepreneur, but the reality is that personal resources are a necessary ingredient for generating self-employment income.

Beyond all of this, Howells does not see how microenterprise loans have the capacity to pull individuals out of poverty. As she says, microenterprises typically operate in the marginal areas of the economy in which there is limited income-generating potential, in effect keeping "disadvantaged women in businesses that are disadvantaged," as other critics have claimed. To buttress this point she cites a study that finds that average hourly earnings for self-employed welfare recipients is $2.63 per hour.

Previous                 Contents                 Next