02/23/2011 03:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bringing the 'Girl Effect' Back Home: Microfinance Projects for American Women

Rosalva immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago, struggled to get by as a babysitter, house cleaner, and community service worker, while raising children. In 2002, Valarie lost her husband to gun violence in Hayward, leaving her as a young single mother to take care of their two children. And Lupe was a single mom, working full time at a low skill job while coping with her son's diagnosis of neurofibromatosis.

None of these women are the stereotypical picture of a microfinance recipient -- they are not from the developing world, they don't have a baby strapped to their back while walking 10 miles to a well, and they are from one of the most prosperous places on Earth -- the Bay Area.

But is the plight of poor women in the United States really that different?

Women in the developed and developing world share many of the same problems: lack of access to the formal financial sector, persistent inequalities in the workforce, and poor social support systems that leave many low-income women struggling to make ends meet for their families.

Yet, women in the developing world have been hailed as the key to social and economic salvation -- the self-sacrificing foundation of familial security and local economic growth.The emphasis on women and girls as a necessary link to poverty alleviation has been well documented through projects like the Girl Effect and recent initiatives like FITE (Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship) in partnership with and Dermalogica.

With so much emphasis on poverty in emerging economies, it is shocking to learn that exclusion from most of the formal financial market exists for low-income Americans, especially women. According to Grameen America, 28 million people in U.S. have no access to formal banking services and less than half of American families have a savings account. Like the rest of the world, more than half of those considered poor in the U.S. were women. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic.

Not surprisingly, studies find that American women are just as likely as women in poorer countries to place their family needs over their own. Sociologist Catherine Kenney published findings that in low to moderate income two-parent U.S. households, children are less likely to experience food insecurity when their parents' pooled income is controlled by their mother rather than their father. A study by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas of low-income single moms in the Philadelphia area revealed a "norm of self-sacrifice" among the women interviewed. All of the women described above -- Rosalda, Valarie, and Lupe, became entrepreneurs to make better lives for their children.

Could women be a key to our salvation from poverty in this country? As the owners of 5.13 million microenterprises (often functioning outside of the formal economy) in the U.S. alone, many low-income women have found that micro-loans are a means to transcend the lower rungs of poverty and provide leadership for other women and girls in their communities. The Opportunity Fund, a Bay Area based microlender with around 65 percent women borrowers, estimates that each small business loan sustains or creates 2.4 jobs on average, and every dollar lent spurs another two dollars in local economic activity!

The focus on women is an important one. It is also important, however, to remember our own cultural context as well -- the social, religious and political forces that have kept many women in subjugated positions in American society. The hardships that women face are not confined to the villages of rural India. Just as women are more likely to take care of their families, they are also more likely to give back to their communities. Rosalda, Valarie, and Lupe all have integrated social inclusion into their own work models -- donating services to victims of domestic violence or purposefully hiring disadvantaged populations like single mothers.

It is easy, as Westerners, to get swept away in the exotic appeal of women in far away places. In doing so, we not only risk cultural imperialism, but we also risk missing out on the immense opportunity to help Western women lift themselves out of poverty as well.