People who need public assistance to get through rough financial times are desperately searching for ways to support their families and move out of poverty. Often their circumstances are very challenging: Their partner has left (along with that income); they have run out of unemployment benefits; they have health problems but can’t qualify for disability; they live in a very rural area with few opportunities; or their court-ordered child support is not being paid. Every year, families in these circumstances are beating the odds and are creating their own jobs. The small businesses they launch move their families out of poverty and contribute to their local communities.
Like any entrepreneur, those that use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families have to zero in on an idea that meets a need in their community. To be successful, they have to pay attention to marketing, financials and customer service. Unlike other entrepreneurs, they often start with no financial resources and little family help.
Fortunately, in Maine, the TANF-ASPIRE program recognizes that self-employment can be a viable strategy for families wishing to earn their way off assistance. If a participant has a feasible idea, ASPIRE allows them to grow their business as a way to fulfill their required work activity. Because of TANF rules, these participants have to move very quickly to produce sales, and they need to make steady progress with their net business income. Women, Work, and Community consults with these clients to help them with marketing strategies, bookkeeping records and a written business plan.
Over the past few years, between 140 to 180 TANF participants each year have started a small business. As many as 26 of these businesses grow enough during the year to qualify the families to move off public assistance. Examples of successful enterprises include day care providers, mechanics, carpenters, restaurants, cleaning services, a denture maker, hair stylists and a cow hoof trimmer.
Even if the business doesn’t earn enough to move a family off assistance, there often are positive outcomes. For instance, when the business income is combined with a part-time job, the family has enough to stand on its own. Often a business can lead someone to a related job that uses the skills they’ve developed as an entrepreneur. In all cases, individuals with a dream of business ownership have been given an opportunity to explore their idea, test its viability and create a satisfying career.
Tina Bonsant is an example of success. When she lost her job and didn’t qualify for unemployment, she searched for ways to support her family of three children.
“On the very day I lost my job, I passed an empty building and wondered what kind of business might work there. Later, I passed a nun who was picking up cans and bottles on the side of the road,” said Bonsant. “The idea clicked.”
She was referred to Women, Work, and Community by her ASPIRE worker and worked hard to get her business, E-Z Redemption in Chelsea, launched. She lined up all the necessary permits and bottle company contracts within 30 days. The business grew, and Tina was able to earn her way off public assistance within eight months of being laid off. She has employed others and is involved in community projects.
“My goal is to do good in my community,” she said.
Another example of a business that has worked is Angela’s (not her real name) child care business. She started it in her home after she went through bankruptcy and divorce. Working with Women, Work, and Community, she attended the required classes for her child care license and passed all the necessary inspections. When she needed new stairs and electric-wired smoke alarms to meet the requirement, she was fortunate to get help from family members who could do that work at little cost. She is now watching seven children — some full time and some part time. Angela’s home is arranged to be child-friendly and pleasant. Her convenient location makes it easy for her customers to find her and her expert child development skills put her in demand.
These low-income families have defied the odds and proven that hard work and attention to business details can lead to financial security and personal fulfillment.
Wendy Rose is a senior microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community based in Augusta serving clients in Kennebec and Somerset counties.