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An entrepreneurial program at risk in budget talks

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Without full funding, many small, local businesses, like food trucks, will not get opportunities. (iStock photo)

As Congress works fervently to reconcile a tax bill and a federal budget to put on the president’s desk before the holidays, the needs of small and emerging entrepreneurs throughout our country — along with the communities they serve — have been subsumed in a larger debate about our national and personal health and wealth.

But it is imperative we not lose sight of lesser-known, at-risk programs that propel entrepreneurship, spur job creation, and shore up communities in ways that are integral to our economy, our democracy and the way we imagine destiny, liberty and opportunity for Americans across the land.

Community development financial institutions, are a case in point.

It’s highly likely that most Americans have never heard of CDFIs, although their origins date back a quarter century. CDFIs are a mix of community-based lenders, without the name recognition of big commercial banks, that specialize in serving low-income and underserved communities. Most, but not all, are nonprofits; they exist in all 50 states and District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And they fill a crucial gap in our financial system by lending to small business owners who don’t have access to responsible and affordable loans.

Although operating in the private sector, CDFIs are supported by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund within the Treasury Department. Established in 1994, the fund has played a crucial role in generating economic growth and opportunity in some of our nation’s most distressed rural and urban communities. By offering tailored resources and innovative programs that invest federal dollars alongside private-sector capital, the CDFI Fund helps CDFIs inject capital into businesses and neighborhoods that lack access to financing. Since its inception, the fund has enabled CDFIs to offer 191,000 loans to small businesses across the country and created or maintained more than one million jobs.

Half of all Americans working in the private sector work for a small business. Small-dollar lending across the country the CDFI Fund not only spurs economic growth, it helps create those jobs. Opportunity Fund, the nation’s largest CDFI lending to small businesses, which I lead, leverages every dollar we get from the CDFI fund into $16 in loans. Our research shows that $12.3 million in CDFI Fund grants Opportunity Fund has received has resulted in $369 million in economic activity, and each loan helps an entrepreneur support an average of three jobs.

CDFIs also have impressively low loan default rates — more evidence that borrowers use the loan funds to support and grow their businesses, create economic activity and support themselves and their families.

However, with the deadline to pass a federal budget fast approaching, the fate of the fund is very much up in the air and risks being slashed by $60 million. On the one hand, the House of Representatives’ version of the budget would cut funding by 25 percent, to $190 million. On the other, the Senate’s version of the appropriations bill calls for preserving full funding at $248 million.

The CDFI Fund is a prime example of bipartisan policymaking that works. It efficiently and effectively drives federal investment, which spurs the private sector to create jobs and support entrepreneurs across America to build businesses that create wealth in communities — and we can’t let up on the gas now.

Without full funding, many small, local businesses will not get opportunities — like Doc’s Q’in Pit Stop in Modesto, Calif, which advanced to its current level of success with a CDFI Fund-backed loan. A $22,000 loan from Opportunity Fund allowed Doc’s owner, Derek Taylor, to bottle his award-winning barbecue sauce, purchase a food truck and hire an employee. His business in this rural community is thriving.

On behalf of entrepreneurs like Derek Taylor, the clients and communities they serve, and all those who aspire to a future as entrepreneurs, we urge Congress to maintain the $248 million in appropriations for the CDFI Fund.

Our nation’s much-vaunted entrepreneurs deserve the chance to fund their American dream.

Luz Urrutia is the CEO of Opportunity Fund, a leading Community Development Financial Institution with the largest portfolio of small business loans under management in the nation.

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