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SBA Struggles as Citigroup, AIG Hog Money

Furthermore, small-business owners can seek free counseling services from 1,400 individuals at 68 field offices across the country. "I think what was not recognized, in the past several years, was what a strong bone structure we had," Mills says.

But the SBA's loan programs have struggled to meet demand as access to capital gets tougher for small businesses everywhere. To wit: 39% of small businesses were unable to secure adequate funding in 2009, according to the National Small Business Association, an advocacy group in Washington. A total of 24% reported worsening terms on bank loans in the past year, and 64% said there have been increases in credit-card fees and interest rates -- and a decrease in credit limits -- in the past six months.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included provisions to eliminate fees and raise the maximum guarantee on certain SBA loans from 75% to 90%, a move that has inspired 1,200 more banks to join the SBA loan program since the act came into force. "We were very successful at deploying our recovery-act funds and getting them into the hands of businesses that needed capital," Mills says.

But the program was a little too successful. The $375 million allocated for the program ran out in November, leaving applicants stuck in a queue. In December, President Barack Obama signed legislation to allocate an additional $125 million to support $4.5 billion in additional SBA loans. The SBA expects that money to carry SBA Recovery Act loan activity for another month.

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