Denver For several years Local 100 represented buggy drivers in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Any tourist in the city has seen the mule driven buggies lined up in front of Jackson Square to give tours which are a mixture of fact, fiction, and raw personality from the drivers themselves. In meeting after meeting about grievances or bargaining the drivers would break out into arguments about whether carriage driving was a “job,” meaning something with real terms, conditions, and employment expectations or a “hustle,” meaning something that worked at the margins and whose income game strictly from their own wild and inimitable contributions totally independent of the employer and whatever they might, or as was usually the case might not, provide. I learned a lot from those conversations which has given me a window for looking at livelihoods ever sense, especially in the vast and growing informal sector.
All of this is another window for looking at the increasing claims for micro-business and micro-finance, even in the United States. An article in recent weeks touted the increasing number of loans that direct micro-lenders like Kiva make in-country ranging up to as high as $10000 along with other emerging micro-lenders. Articles in The American Prospect reprinted in The Utne Review had a catchy headline about “Turning Hustlers into Entrepreneurs.” All of which I think goes to the point, which is not an unimportant contribution, but is beside the point of poverty reduction.
It is indisputable that there is a huge market for small loans in the United States because we do not have community banks anymore that care about the small lending needs of businesses and individuals. It is widely understood that banks have virtually deserted lending in less than $100000 chunks leaving the market open for predatory rates from finance companies, pay day lenders, pawn operations, and other bottom feeders. None of this creates much, if any, citizen wealth, but is part of day-to-day survival mechanisms for the poor.
Micro-lending claims and practices might feel some of this gap though these are gazillion, billion dollar gaps and micro-lenders in the US are small potatoes in this food chain. The stories of their successes also seem to focus on what my buggy drivers would have understood clearly are the value of the hustle rather than the worth of the job. A job brings real entitlements. A hustle depends on the day to day race to survive in the jungle benefiting speed and wits, the hare not the turtle.
The claims of small business advocates that we can deal with citizen wealth by enabling entrepreneurs is more of the same fairy tale, and it is fine as far as the story goes. Yes, there are people with ideas, energy, and innovations and they desperately need support, so give it to them, and where there is now a banking desert, let someone come in regardless of the name.
But, just as we all know what a real job is, let’s not mistake any of this as being a real strategy for poverty reduction. Fairy tales are wonderful, but we have to focus on reality to create real change.