Federal policies block loans to small business owners with a record

Starting a small business is increasingly recognized as a pathway to opportunity for individuals with an arrest or conviction history—particularly given the disadvantages they face in the labor market. An estimated 4% of small businesses in the United States have an owner with a conviction (1.5% have a felony conviction). Small businesses provide “a vital opportunity for those with a criminal record to contribute to society, to earn an honest profit, and to give back to others.” They also frequently employ people with a record and help reduce recidivism. A growing number of organizations and government programs are devoted to supporting individuals with a record in building their own businesses.

Yet many structural barriers remain, including a series of little-known federal regulations and policies that impose broad criminal history restrictions on access to government-sponsored business loans, notably by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).  A recent article illustrates the steep challenges faced by business owners with a record by telling the stories of several entrepreneurs who were either denied an SBA loan or were discouraged from even trying for one because of a dated felony conviction.  One of those entrepreneurs comments: “You might do five years, ten years, one year, but you pay for it until you’re in the grave.”

To illuminate and help reduce these barriers, our organization is working to develop a new “Fair Chance Lending” project. We hope to show that—rather than broadly exclude individuals with a criminal history—officials should draw record-based restrictions as narrowly as feasible, facilitate access to resources, and celebrate entrepreneurial efforts, consistent with growing national support for reintegration and fair chances in civil society.

The SBA’s record-related lending policies came into focus in the spring of 2020 when the agency imposed remarkably broad criminal history restrictions on hundreds of billions in financial relief for small businesses and nonprofits authorized through the CARES Act in response to COVID-19. The SBA’s pandemic relief programs were massive: in fiscal year 2020, the agency distributed $525 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and $211 billion through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. But hundreds of thousands of small businesses and nonprofits were barred by the SBA from accessing these funds through shockingly extensive criminal history restrictions not required or suggested by statute, with disproportionate impacts on Black and Latino/Latinx communities.

A recent RAND study found that just one aspect of these restrictions—the disqualification from PPP relief of all businesses with an owner or “associate” with a felony conviction within the previous five years—excluded an estimated 212,655 small businesses with 343,198 employees.

When we began to write about SBA’s restrictions on COVID-19 relief shortly after the passage of the CARES Act, our servers crashed because of the level of public interest, requiring us to update our systems. Thousands of business owners emailed us, with a wide variety of disqualifying records and types of businesses, desperate for help, fearful of publicly discussing their predicament lest their backgrounds be exposed. We researched the issues in detail and joined a large bipartisan group of organizations calling on the SBA to revise its restrictions. The SBA, also facing public pressure from impacted individuals, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and litigation, rolled back most of the restrictions it had imposed, with the Trump Administration loosening restrictions on multiple occasions over the course of 2020 and the Biden Administration making additional changes in early 2021.

Despite the massive impact of these restrictions on the first round of emergency relief, the SBA did not initially explain or attempt to justify them. When sued in June 2020, the SBA defended its rule on grounds that criminal history can speak to an applicant’s “higher likelihood of reincarceration” and “potential for misuse of funds.” See Defy Ventures v. U.S. Small Business Administration, 469 F. Supp. 3d 459, 476 (D. Md. 2020).

Despite the easing of record-related restrictions on COVID-19 relief, the SBA continues to maintain extensive criminal record barriers in its general business loan and disaster assistance programs which are summarized below. The SBA treats criminal history as a credit risk, despite the absence of any evidence to support that position or statutory authority for it.1 While the agency has awarded a handful of grants in recent years to community-based organizations working with formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs, its general lending programs all but preclude loans to the entrepreneurs themselves.

In addition to its various lending programs, the SBA provides training, contracting opportunities, and other forms of assistance to small disadvantaged businesses through the 8(a) Business Development Program, which allows participants to take advantage of set-aside and sole-source contracts to help aspiring entrepreneurs compete for positions as government contractors. The 8(a) Program allows for, and often requires, consideration of applicants’ criminal backgrounds as part of a mandate that applicants have “good character.”

In contrast, the SBA’s rural-focused sister agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, appears to administer its various lending programs to farmers and ranchers with narrowly-tailored criminal history restrictions tied to specific statutory provisions.2

The SBA’s criminal history restrictions very likely contribute to racial inequalities in the economy. The SBA’s criminal history restrictions on COVID-19 relief led to documented racial disparities. The SBA’s comparable criminal history restrictions in its general loan programs almost certainly have similar effects, particular given the well-documented racial disparities in the instance of criminal records in general. The SBA makes little effort to justify its broad policy-based restrictions, which heightens their contrast with the targeted statutory restrictions that apply to rural-focused lending programs administered by the USDA.

The criminal record restrictions in the SBA’s lending programs are described in greater detail below.

Criminal record restrictions in the Small Business Administration’s lending programs

  1. The SBA 7(a) and 504 programs

The SBA’s most common business loan, through the 7(a) program, guarantees a large percentage of a loan provided by a private lender. The SBA’s development company program, the 504 program, provides long-term, fixed rate financing for major fixed assets through Certified Development Companies. Both programs authorize individual loans of up to $5 million. In fiscal year 2020 alone, the SBA provided $22.5 billion in loans through the 7(a) program and $5.8 billion through the 504 program.

An SBA regulation makes ineligible for either program “[b]usinesses with an Associate who is incarcerated, on probation, on parole, or has been indicted for a felony or a crime of moral turpitude.” SBA’s policy statement applicable to both programs imposes additional blanket restrictions, also making ineligible businesses with an associate currently under specified forms of diversionary or conditional dispositions, an order of protection, registered with a sex offense registry, or facing any criminal charges in any jurisdiction.

This policy statement further provides that various individuals associated with the business must also be “of good character,” as determined by the SBA (this includes any proprietor, general partner, officer, director, managing member of a limited liability company, owner of 20% or more of the equity of the Applicant, Trustor, or any person hired to manage day-to-day operations). Each of these persons must disclose and provide documentation about: (1) any arrests in the past six months; and (2) any criminal offense (excluding minor vehicle violations), any convictions, guilty pleas, no contest pleas, or any placements on pretrial diversion or any form of parole or probation, at any time. All expunged and sealed records must be disclosed. If any person has not satisfied all sentencing conditions (which may include payment of court debt), the applicant is not eligible for a loan.

A lender may proceed with a loan (assuming all other requirements are met) if all the documented criminal records are older than six months and involve either: a non-conviction or a misdemeanor conviction not involving a crime against a minor. However, if any person has: a prior felony conviction that was not reduced to a misdemeanor, a prior misdemeanor conviction for a crime against a minor, or, within the previous six months, either a misdemeanor conviction or charges filed, they are required to complete an FBI fingerprint background check and undergo an individualized character determination by the SBA—before a lender may process the loan. It is unknown how often lenders actually proceed with the FBI/SBA process at that point rather than simply deny the application. It is also unknown how often the SBA finds that such a person meets the “good character” requirement in its policy statement.

2. The SBA microloan program

The SBA’s microloan program, which provides loans of up to $50,000 through authorized nonprofit community-based intermediaries, imposes narrow criminal history restrictions. The SBA distributed $85 million through this program in fiscal year 2020Regulations provide that businesses are ineligible only if they have an associate who is incarcerated or under indictment for a felony or crime of moral turpitude, or on probation or parole for certain offenses. The SBA’s policy statement for the microloan program does not impose any additional blanket restrictions or good character requirements, although it vests discretion with the lender to determine whether to lend to an applicant with a criminal record other than the disqualifying records described above.

3. The SBA disaster loan program

The SBA’s disaster loan program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans to recover from disasters, also includes criminal history restrictions. First, an applicant is not eligible by statute if an owner was convicted in the previous year of a felony during and in connection with a riot or civil disorder or other declared disaster. Second, the applicable SBA policy statement states that it will not approve a loan if the applicant or principal owner is presently on parole or probation following conviction of a “serious criminal offense” (unless, for partnerships, corporations, and limited liability entities, the offense was unrelated to the business and the individual will divest all interest in the business).

Third, the SBA requires that all of the following persons undergo a “character evaluation”: proprietors, limited partners who own 20% or more interest,  general partners, or stockholders or entities owning 20% or more voting stock, if they have any current charges pending, have been arrested in the previous six months, or if they have for any criminal offense excluding minor vehicle violations, any convictions, guilty pleas, no contest pleas, or any placements on pretrial diversion or any form of parole or probation. A detailed explanation about the records must be provided, including unpaid fines and fees. An application can be processed without an FBI fingerprint check only if the disclosed criminal activity “is both minor in nature and was committed more than 10 years ago.” Otherwise, an FBI background check must be completed. Finally, the SBA will make a determination of whether the person is “of good character.” (Note that separate criminal history requirements apply to COVID-19 disaster loans.)


In the coming months, we plan to continue this work by conducting further research on SBA, USDA, and state policies, convening conversations between stakeholders, and issuing policy recommendations on this important issue.

1 The Small Business Act authorizes the SBA to “verify [a loan] applicant’s criminal background, or lack thereof,” and authorizes the conduct of an FBI investigation of loan applicants. See 15 U.S.C. §636(a)(1)(B).  But neither this provision nor any other law requires that a background check be conducted as a condition of making a loan, much less does it require the agency to treat criminal history as a measure of creditworthiness.  Cf. 13 C.F.R. §120.150(a) (SBA regulation stating that it will consider “character” and “reputation” in determining if an applicant is “creditworthy”). The only statutory criminal history restriction on SBA loan applicants that we can identify is a half-century old exclusion from 7(b) disaster loans of persons convicted in the year prior to application of a felony “during and in connection with a riot or civil disorder.” See Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act of 1968, P.L. 90-448 § 1106(e). In addition, the SBA, and every other federal agency, is subject to a government-wide provision that can result in disqualification from federal loans and grants for a period of time based on certain drug convictions. See 21 U.S.C. § 862 (denial of federal grants, contracts, loans, and licenses based on court-imposed and mandatory debarments based on convictions for trafficking or possessing controlled substances).

2 Record-related barriers covering USDA lending programs appear to be few and targeted, rooted in statutes, and triggered by specific offenses. See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. § 889 (conviction for planting, cultivation, growing, producing, harvesting, or storing a controlled substance triggers prohibition for that crop year and four succeeding crop years on access various USDA loan, grant, payment and contract programs); 7 C.F.R. § 718.6 (same); 7 U.S.C. § 2209j (permanent or 10-year debarment from USDA programs for fraud in connection with USDA programs); 2 C.F.R. § 417.865 (same). One of the USDA’s business loan programs, for example, the Business & Industry (B&I) Loan Guarantees program, described by the USDA as “similar” to the SBA 7(a) program but targeted to rural businesses, does not appear to contain any additional criminal history restrictions except an optional bank “character” review that is not specifically linked to criminal record. See 7 C.F.R. § 5001.202 (“When applicable, a [lender’s] evaluation [of an applicant] may include the character of persons with management control or a 20 percent or more ownership interest in the borrower.”). In addition, the USDA, like every federal agency, is subject to government-wide provisions that can result in disqualification from federal loans and grants for a period of time based on specific types of criminal convictions. See note 1.