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New Legal Center for Low-Income Entrepreneurs Will Remove Barriers to Economic Opportunity


Posted December 2, 2019
4:49 pm


Millions of Americans live in poverty. But the traditional path to economic security – a job – doesn’t translate to the same wealth and opportunity that it once did. Minimum wage is too low to hold poverty at bay, and volatile work schedules often do not add up to full-time employment. For many, barriers to employment such as a criminal record or a lack of transportation make finding a job challenging or impossible.

Entrepreneurship provides a powerful pathway out of poverty.  A recent Aspen Institute study that followed 1,500 low-income entrepreneurs for five years found that 53% of them had moved out of poverty during that time. 75% had increased their household income by anywhere between $8,000 and $22,374, and overall, assets had increased by as much as $15,000 over five years.

Unfortunately, for those with low income, starting a business poses many challenges. All self-employed business owners have to think about taxes, work space, non-profit vs. for-profit status, filing with the Secretary of State and more. Among other things, low-income entrepreneurs often lack the financial resources and social capital needed to succeed.

To address this need for supports in the local business community, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland created a Legal Center for Low-Income Entrepreneurs, led by attorney Julie Cortes.  Thanks to formative support from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland's Innovation Mission and a grant from the Thomas White Foundation, Legal Aid's innovative program provides specialized support for Northeast Ohio’s underrepresented, underserved, and low-income entrepreneurs.

Julie researched the needs of low-income and underrepresented entrepreneurs. She then met with stakeholders from Cleveland’s business ecosystem, including entrepreneurs and the organizations that serve them.  From these experiences, Julie learned that, in order to succeed, low-income entrepreneurs need access to programs and services tailored to their needs – including high-quality, affordable legal services.

The Center accepts client referrals from partner organizations. Prospective business owners will undergo two kinds of “legal check-ups.” The first will screen the client’s business for important preliminary legal matters and to identify outstanding legal issues. The second check-up will screen for personal legal problems that can interfere with one’s ability to successfully develop and manage a business. Additionally, Legal Aid will develop educational materials and offer regular presentations on relevant legal topics.

No one can be successful while facing legal barriers to housing, food, shelter, and safety – and every new business has legal needs that must be addressed. Legal Aid’s Center for Low-Income Entrepreneurs will help driven, low-income individuals who desire to become business owners achieve success. With the legal assistance they need, local entrepreneurs will be supported in their quest to address unmet needs in their neighborhoods and will experience fewer legal stumbling blocks in the future when their business is firmly established.