Why are so many black-owned small businesses shut out of PPP loans?

The vast majority of black-owned small businesses do not qualify for the government’s emergency Paycheck Protection Program loan, despite a fresh round of CARES Act funding that includes $60 billion in set-asides for minority and other underserved borrowers.

Per its name, PPP was designed by Congress to shore up payroll for companies who saw business drop because of the coronavirus lockdowns.

But 92 percent of black-owned small businesses do not have full-time salaried workers on payroll, and so are considered “nonemployer” firms, according to the latest available Census data.

That means only 8 percent of black-owned small businesses are even eligible for PPP, as “employer” firms.

Most white-owned small businesses, 74 percent, are also considered nonemployer firms. But more white-owned businesses are classified as employer firms than their black counterparts, 26 percent.

The coronavirus loan program executed by the Small Business Administration offers up to $10 million in loans per customer that can turn into grants that don’t have to be repaid if certain rules are followed, such as using most of it for payroll, plus rent and utilities.

The program has been marred by administrative glitches and controversies since its hasty midnight launch on April 3. Funds effectively ran out in minutes, as well-resourced firms — with the help of their bankers — muscled their way to the front, while mom and pops were left wondering whether they even had a place in line.

New guidance from the SBA and warnings from the Treasury Department have some companies returning funds for which they thought they were eligible. Other companies may decide to hang on to their millions. And many small businesses are left with nothing.

The divides are the inevitable result of a broadly defined program that initially had no guardrails for vulnerable populations and was weighted towards borrowers with whom banks had existing business relationships because of anti-money laundering “know your customer” regulations banks asked Treasury to waive, but it did not.

Despite good intentions, the government’s emergency relief program leaves many feeling left behind.

And thanks to a racial credit access gap that persists despite the outlawing of overt “redlining,” or institutionalized discrimination against vast swaths of minority borrowers, more white firms were eligible than other demographic, said Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Terence Dickson is the owner of Terra Cafe, a restaurant in Baltimore that is embedded in the local community and offers food, music and arts to its clientele. He applied for the Paycheck Protection Program the first day it opened but is still waiting for relief.Andre Chung / for NBC News

Baltimore café owner Terence Dickson is desperately calling everyone he knows for some kind of help with his PPP relief applications. He’s down to his last few hundred dollars in the personal savings account he’s been using to pay his staff. He has tried Bank of America, where he has a business checking account; his personal bank; politicians who have used his cafe for campaign events; and even the Lieutenant Governor’s office.

“The financial industry has shown me no love for 20 years,” he said of his challenges qualifying for traditional bank loans. But he feels this program should be different. “It’s our goddamn money. It’s taxpayer money.”

At his Terra cafe, a community-focused restaurant offering Southern comfort and soul food along with an arts and events space, Dickson has been trying to pivot with the times since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. He’s increased delivery operations, tried to get the hang of Instagram and social media marketing, but sales have still plummeted.

Dickson is well aware of the numerous other programs besides PPP, such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, another type of relief offered through SBA, as well as state, local and philanthropic grants. But neither he nor his fellow business owners in the “Black Wall Street” of Baltimore have had any success.

“I’m tired of hearing about the money. I want to see the money,” said Dickson.

After NBC News inquiries, Bank of America discovered Dickson’s PPP application didn’t appear in the system, and added him in.

Black business leaders say the small-business programs need to do more to reach underserved borrowers. The set-asides for community and minority lenders are one step. But some program rules currently leave out a large number of “community-development funding institutions” that could participate (the government maintains a searchable database of certified CDFI’s here). There also needs to be funding for training and education in how to apply for these programs, said Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chambers of Commerce.

“I hear a lot about making America great again. In order to have a great America there has to be a great black America. In order to have that we need great black businesses. We need access to capital,” he said.

“There is a structural flaw in this program. It uses banks as middlemen. Any time you create a big program and give banks the ability to choose which customers it prioritizes, you’re going to have disparities.”

Experts say the differences in access, while not intended by the program’s drafters or executors, are the results of social and economic inequities that must be taken into account by policymakers.

“There is a structural flaw in this program. It uses banks as middlemen. Any time you create a big program and give banks the ability to choose which customers it prioritizes, you’re going to have disparities,” said Baradaran. “Credit disparities are where past injustices lead to present disparities.”

According to data by payroll and HR firm Paychex, the top five industries hit hardest among black-owned business in terms of wages are accommodations and food services, arts, entertainment and recreation, manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing.

Devon Mack, Juan Nance, Themar Long and Terence Dickson prepare free lunches at Terra Cafe in Baltimore on April 18, 2020.Andre Chung / for NBC News

Last Friday, the White House organized a call with African-American stakeholders, lenders, business owners and community leaders following President Donald Trump’s signing of a new bill authorizing additional coronavirus relief funding.

With over 700 participants listening in nationwide, Ashley Bell, Regional Administrator for SBA Southeast Region, acknowledged difficulties with the PPP program’s design when it came to reaching black businesses.

“Over 90 percent of black businesses don’t have employees, they use independent contractors,” he said.

But he exhorted those that do qualify to quickly apply, and to reach out to their SBA regional director if they need a list of nearby participating banks, including those taking new customers.

“You want to make sure you call your bank today,” he said. “If you want money tomorrow, call today.”

However, despite good intentions, the government’s emergency relief program leaves many feeling left behind.

Devin Guinn, who owns a landscaping company in Dallas, Texas, is a black business owner. He and his crews are still out there planting trees and installing greenery for municipal and business clients. He was able to apply for a $10,000 advance loan but is still waiting to hear about his PPP application. He disagrees with the approach of the public program run through private banks that favored those with existing relationships.

“It’s completely unfair. This is an economic disaster affecting people no matter what race, religion, or socioeconomic level,” he said. “That’s a form of discrimination that plays into the history of America.”

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