Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Adams, Tracey L.

2nd Supervisor

Ramos, Howard


This dissertation focuses on microenterprise in Toronto and Los Angeles. Two related research objectives are pursued in this dissertation. The first and overarching question concerns empowerment. 1) To what extent do microfinance and microenterprise programs empower their clients? The second broad theme concerns neoliberalism. How is the experience of empowerment shaped by neoliberalism? To gain further insight, I consider the following questions. 2) What are the objectives, intended outcomes and structures of microenterprise programs? 3) Who are the key actors in the space and are there any patterns in relation to race, gender and class? 4) What role does structural location (specifically race and class) play in one’s experience or in empowerment outcomes? 5) What are the intended and unintended consequences of microenterprise programs? I rely on qualitative data gathered from fifty-eight, semi—structured interviews with three groups (microenterprise funders, workers, and clients). Evidence is presented that demonstrates the ways in which empowerment approaches had been shaped by neoliberal reforms. On the one hand, participants were sometimes empowered and leveraged social capital developed through program participation. On the other hand, neoliberalism constrained actors. Additionally, neoliberalism was not only correlated to racial inequality, it was accelerated by racism. Racism (especially colour-blind racism) was normalized and was a defining feature within the microenterprise field, despite the language of equality and empowerment (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Microenterprise actors embraced neoliberalism and idealized the entrepreneurial citizen, propagating the myth of individualism and meritocracy. Colour-blindness played a role in the blaming of microenterprise clients for system failures. This highlights a problem for those who seek to empower the poor as it illuminates the risk of engagement that takes places in ways that may be harmful. Given that the structure of inequality and racism are entrenched by neoliberal economic policy, both must be disrupted. Only by turning our attention to system failures, exploitation and oppression, can individuals be empowered. I offer a new Empowerment Model as an analytical tool but also as a pathway to a better way forward. Centering the voices, experiences and lives of racialized individuals, will lead to more beneficial outcomes.

Summary for Lay Audience

Why do some people seem to struggle more to get ahead or survive in today’s economy? How do aspects of our identities or experience – such as race, gender or class – impact our ability to get ahead and realize the "American Dream?" How can those who struggle most be supported or empowered? Is entrepreneurship part of the solution to their troubles? This study wrestles with these questions, and more. The author interviewed clients, workers and funders of microfinance and microenterprise programs in Toronto and Los Angeles. Microfinance programs traditionally provide small loans to people living in poverty to start small businesses, in order that they may support themselves and their families. It is frequently referred to as a way to provide a ‘hand-up’, as opposed to a ‘hand-out’. Today’s programs also offer loans, savings, business training, financial literacy training, business advisory services and support. The study found that people coming together on a regular basis and forming social connections, as well as trust, belonging and a willingness to help one another, played a role in improving their lives. This, however, was not the whole story. Community members’ awareness of the barriers that made life more difficult for some, and a desire to do something about those challenges, was an important part of becoming empowered. Also, understanding race and racism contributed to worker’s effectiveness and the degree of empowerment experienced by clients. The findings provide some guidance for government, industry, and charitable organizations, as well as improved ways of helping struggling families facing hard times.

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Sociology Commons