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The Bachelor PPP loan drama shows the program was flawed from the start

Giving Arie Luyendyk Jr. $20,833 for his business Instagram Husband LLC wasn’t even the government’s first mistake.

ABC’s “The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart” - Season One
Arie Luyendyk Jr. and Lauren Burnham Luyendyk are among the former Bachelor contestants who received PPP loans.
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A group of Bachelor contestants is, once again, facing blowback for allegedly doing something for the wrong reasons.

This time, the drama centers on the use of the Paycheck Protection Program, an effort designed by the federal government to provide forgivable loans to small businesses that were struggling during the pandemic. The program, colloquially known as PPP, was intended to be flexible: Most businesses or nonprofits with 500 employees or fewer were able to apply in the first round of funding.

Among those who managed to take advantage of it were stars of the Bachelor reality television franchise, prompting new uproar over famous, seemingly well-off individuals receiving federal funding meant for struggling small businesses. This revelation follows past news of chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris, and companies run by celebrities like Kanye West, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Brady, also receiving these loans.

As TMZ reported, several Bachelor alums obtained PPP support: Tayshia Adams, a recent lead on The Bachelorette and host of the current season, received a $20,833 loan. Colton Underwood, the lead of The Bachelor in 2019, received an $11,355 loan for his foundation. And Arie Luyendyk, the lead of The Bachelor in 2018, received a $20,830 loan. Other well-known members of Bachelor Nation like Dale Moss, Bryan Abasolo, and Peter Kraus also received PPP loans.

While Adams has said her loan went to hire and pay a new employee, and Underwood notes that his money was used to help address expenses at his charity, the condemnation has been swift. Nick Viall, one of the most prominent stars of Bachelor Nation, is among those who have called out their reality show peers for capitalizing on help they likely didn’t need.

Viall tweeted that while he doesn’t “know everyone’s situation,” his instinct is that “any alum applying for a PPP is both savvy and shitty.”

Whether these reality show contestants-turned-influencers actually prevented other small businesses from receiving money is somewhat unclear. According to Sarah Crozier, a communications director at Main Street Alliance, a small-business advocacy group, it’s possible they crowded out other businesses if they applied in the first wave of funding, which opened in April 2020 and was the most competitive. (Underwood’s loan was approved on May 1, 2020, and Luyendyk’s came the following month.) If they applied in later waves when more money was added to the program, however, it’s less likely that they affected other businesses, though PPP funding did ultimately run out. (Both Adams’s and Moss’s loans are from this year.)

Like Viall, we also don’t know how hard everyone’s businesses were hit by the pandemic and the justifications for these loans, even though several of these individuals’ roles as prominent influencers make them prime targets for scrutiny. It’s worth noting, too, that the use of the loan could speak to its merits as well: There’s a difference between a presumably well-off person who potentially took on the loan to pay themselves, versus someone who needed it to keep their gym afloat, as Kraus did.

Their specific impact aside, the latest Bachelor fallout underscores the massive shortcomings the program has been dealing with since its inception.

“It highlights the problems that we saw and were talking about all along. It’s another newer, more flashy example of the issues with the program,” said Ashley Harrington, federal advocacy director at the Center for Responsible Lending. “For us, the problem was not just about who was getting the loans but who wasn’t getting the loans.”

Although lawmakers worked to improve access to the program over time, a confusing application process and reliance on banks as a key distributor of the loans always meant that those with resources would have a leg up over other small businesses that did not. Because of flaws in the program design, some businesses were shut out of the loans altogether, others were allocated an amount far smaller than they requested, and some were deterred from even applying.

A Small Business Administration spokesperson emphasized that the Biden administration has implemented reforms to make the program more equitable, noting that “PPP loans in 2021 averaged $42,000, an indicator of targeted relief to the smallest small businesses,” and that “32 percent of PPP loans went to Low-and-Moderate Income (LMI) communities.” In total, the SBA says it has distributed almost $800 billion in loans to more than 8 million small businesses via PPP.

It’s unclear if the actions of Bachelor contestants ended up harming other small businesses. These revelations, however, have raised awareness that PPP was set up in a way that benefited those who had the resources, and failed to deliver the necessary money to many small businesses in need. While fixes earlier this year helped, they also came later in the process, when a significant portion of PPP funds had already been doled out.

“There were a lot of flaws in the way programs were developed that excluded businesses,” says Brian Pifer, a policy expert for Small Business Majority. “If people had connections or lawyers or accountants, they were at the front of the line.”

Bachelor Nation of scammers?

The PPP loans were supposed to help small businesses — like restaurants and gyms and hair salons — keep people on the payroll and stay afloat during the pandemic. They were not exactly intended for well-off reality television influencers to take money from the federal government and hire an assistant.

Being a former Bachelor or Bachelorette lead or contestant is a pretty lucrative situation. That’s why in any given season, it’s really 50/50 who’s there to find love and who just wants to pick up some followers on Instagram or promote their country music career while maybe having a secret girlfriend at home. Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, estimates reality TV stars can make over $1 million a year off of Instagram at the top end. Even at the lower end, they peg that number at $444,000.

Many of the Bachelor contestants in question aren’t just romance seekers who made it onto a group date or two; they are franchise stars with enormous followings and, presumably, earning power. Adams (1.8 million Instagram followers) and Underwood (2 million) are former leads. She is co-hosting the current season of The Bachelorette, and he is working on a Netflix series about his life after recently coming out as gay. Moss (700,000 followers) won a 2020 season of The Bachelorette and is a model.

As Vulture notes, Luyendyk, also a former lead, and his wife, Lauren Burnham Luyendyk, released a video about their purchase of a second home in Hawaii in April 2021. He took out the loan under his company, Instagram Husband LLC, which lists two employees. The pair’s personal Instagram accounts and the accounts they run for their kids have a combined total of over 2.7 million followers. They’ve even done sponsored posts from their children’s accounts.

Although we don’t have the details on how each PPP loan was spent, we do have some information from ProPublica’s database on the program: In those filings, Adams, Luyendyk, Underwood, and Moss all note that the entirety of the loans they received were spent on payroll. Adams, Underwood, and Moss all only list one job, while Luyendyk lists two, raising the possibility that they could have all used these funds to pay themselves. (Crozier notes that the self-reporting people used in these forms was inconsistent, so sometimes one job only referenced the owner of the company, and sometimes it referenced the number of employees in addition to the owner.)

Adams has said the money went toward an assistant’s salary, Underwood has said none of the funds went to him directly, and Moss and Luyendyk have yet to comment publicly.

Whatever the case, it seems these Bachelor stars took money they probably didn’t need, and in all likelihood their loans will be forgiven. Meanwhile, there have been countless stories about small businesses in really dire positions missing out.

Jason Tartick, another Bachelor Nation star who has since styled himself as a sort of financial guru, posted a video on Instagram explaining that he almost applied for a PPP loan but decided against it. “I just thought, ‘It’s not fair.’ That’s why I didn’t do it,” he said. He added that 2020 was a very profitable year for him — and likely for his fellow Bachelor stars. Even though live events were called off, there was a ton of money to be made off social media with everyone stuck at home during the pandemic. “The ability to pick up the marketing fees that were coming in and the engagement on social media was drastically higher. My best year ever in my career was 2020,” he said.

Michael Minnis, an accounting professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said that the Bachelor stars would have taken out PPP loans isn’t surprising, given that the program is open to sole proprietorships, single-member LLCs, and anyone who files a Schedule C tax form. The PPP caps the maximum annual income for sole proprietors at $100,000, so for sole proprietors or contractors with no employees, the maximum possible loan was $20,833. You’ll notice that’s about the amount everyone but Underwood got a loan for, or close to it.

“$20,833 is not a random number. That’s the number you would get if you claimed the maximum a sole proprietor would claim,” Minnis said. “A lot of limitations here were based on people’s own conscience more than anything else.”

Other Bachelor stars got PPP loans, too. Peter Kraus, the runner-up on Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette, got a pair of loans for $20,800 and $2,995 tied to his fitness business, including a gym he owns in Wisconsin. Bryan Abasolo, the winner of Lindsay’s season and now her husband, got a $7,552 loan for Dr. Abs Lifestyle & Wellness, his fitness and chiropractic brand.

Kraus, who has spoken publicly before about how hard the pandemic has been for his business, told Vox he’s lost over $150,000 because of it. “The pandemic destroyed my business, it absolutely destroyed it,” he said. Kraus experienced firsthand many of the ways the program was flawed. He opened his own gym in April 2019, and he says his application for the gym to get a PPP loan in 2020 was denied because the operation wasn’t old enough. So he took out a loan on his personal earnings from his boot camp and social media and put it toward the gym. “That total loan paid for basically one month of expenses,” he said. The second loan he got this year was so small that he says he wondered “what’s even the point.” His first loan lists one employee, his second loan eight.

Kraus emphasized that he’s “not making as much money as these people from the franchise who make millions” and expressed concern that reporting on him receiving the loans — which he did not realize would be public — would lead to criticism. While the fame of appearing on the show has almost certainly brought him business and profits, he is frustrated by the negative attention it’s carried with it as well. “You can’t win; I’m so sick of it,” he said, describing the situation as “just another thing to be annoyed [about] from this whole pandemic and being on the show in general.”

Abasolo did not respond to a request for comment.

Bachelor stars are far from the only reality television personalities picking up pandemic loans. A review of ProPublica’s database reveals that Nicole Polizzi, better known as Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore, got a $15,500 loan for her business, NEP Snooki Enterprises LLC, in April 2020. She reported having three employees, who according to her website appear to be her and her parents. Representatives for Polizzi did not return a request for comment for this story.

Jennifer Farley, also known as JWoww from Jersey Shore, took in a $20,800 loan in February. In an email to Vox, a spokesperson for Farley said that she did apply and accept a PPP loan “in an effort to keep the employees that she has on payroll.” The spokesperson did not respond when asked how many people Farley employs; the loan she received for Jenni Farley Inc. reports one employee, which could very well be Farley herself.

It’s not clear how the loans have been used, and reasonable minds can disagree about the merits of taking them out. The larger issue their actions shed light on, though, is how the program failed to reach other small businesses.

PPProblems

PPP, although created with the straightforward goal of helping businesses keep people on payroll, proved to be a very confusing program for many to pursue.

For one, the application itself was convoluted and hard to navigate without professional help. For sole proprietors especially, or small-business owners who don’t have any employees, the initial guidelines were especially murky and didn’t get corrected until this spring. Initially, because the loan amounts for sole proprietors were calculated with net profits, the funding that many were approved for was far lower than what they needed, for instance.

Crozier cites a major stumbling block for businesses as not understanding the application or not “having the resources to have accountants to help.” “By the time I caught up to what I need to apply, then boom-bam-bam, they announced they ran out of funds,” designer April James told the Los Angeles Times this past May.

Additionally, the program — particularly in the earliest rounds — relied on banks as one of the key intermediaries for distributing the money, which meant that many business owners who did not have existing relationships with these institutions were effectively shut out.

Large banks like Bank of America and Chase required applicants to have prior accounts in order to apply for PPP, meaning that those who did not had to seek out loans elsewhere. These banks have also come under fire for allegedly prioritizing larger clients over those looking for smaller loans, since those applications could translate to larger fees. (Bank of America and Chase have both denied doing so.)

“Because PPP went through private lending institutions, anyone with more knowledge or connections to those institutions, those ties absolutely mattered because of the way that the program was structured,” says Crozier.

Many small businesses didn’t have strong banking relationships prior to the pandemic: According to a 2019 survey by the Fed Small Business, only 44 percent of small firms had used a bank for funding in the past five years. This effectively meant that a major channel for obtaining the PPP loans was much tougher for a number of businesses to access: While the program offered more lenders over time, including Community Development Financial Institutions, larger banks were still responsible for a high proportion of the loans.

Applying to the program was also only part of the problem: Of the small businesses that did, many didn’t receive the funding they requested. A Small Business Majority survey in February 2021 found that 75 percent of white business owners received the full amount they asked for, while 51 percent of business owners of color did.

There were also concerns around how the loans would ultimately be forgiven, with some businesses hesitant to apply for them for fear of getting saddled with more debt if they didn’t use the money correctly. In order to qualify for a fully forgivable loan, after all, businesses needed to demonstrate that they used at least 60 percent of the funds on payroll, a challenging bar for some to meet if many of their expenses were operational, like rent and utilities.

So far, the loan forgiveness process has been messy, to say the least. As the Intercept reported in March, the process has included myriad delays for businesses that have tried to apply for forgiveness. At the time, 56 percent of businesses had yet to receive loan forgiveness either because their applications to do so were still in the queue or because they hadn’t applied yet:

“I have spent two months of my working time trying to get this forgiven,” [Jenna] Edwards [told The Intercept]. The PPP money “is supposed to free up my energies to do my business,” she added. But “it’s just kind of hard to take on more things when that’s taking up the mental and emotional space.”

All these challenges deterred some small businesses from applying altogether, or excluded those that did try to use the program. Per Small Business Majority’s February survey, just 54 percent of small businesses with revenue under $100,000 received any type of federal funding, compared to 90 percent of businesses with revenue over $100,000. Compared to white business owners, business owners of color were even less likely to have gotten some form of aid.

Because of the urgency around PPP, which was launched in April 2020 just as the pandemic was taking hold in the US, the program was bound to be imperfect. The idea was to get money out the door fast. Still, more than a year later, it’s obvious it could have been designed much better. “I think the jury is going to be out as to whether the PPP was an efficient way to have allocated these funds,” Minnis said. He compared the program to a helicopter, hovering overhead and just dumping money to the ground below.

Bachelor stars should probably be embarrassed, but they’re not the real issue

While the morality of Bachelor stars’ use of the PPP program is certainly debatable, the larger issue is that this program didn’t reach some businesses that could have really used it.

Roughly 200,000 small businesses closed permanently during the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve. And although there are no guarantees that more PPP support would have been enough to save many of them, there are clear gaps where the program and other federal efforts fell short.

Small-business advocacy groups have long urged lawmakers to make PPP funds a direct grant offering, so businesses wouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of loan forgiveness and deal with the barriers posed by financial institutions.

It’s a lesson that could be helpful in the case of other such programs down the line, and the popularity of this approach has already been apparent in the launches of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, both aimed at specific industries. Businesses can apply for these through the Small Business Administration. (The Economic Injury Disaster Grants also worked in this way.)

Grants without the gatekeeping by banks could have potentially made PPP funds more accessible and approachable to businesses in need.

“We need direct grants that you don’t have to go through a financial institution to access,” Harrington said. “We know the history and the continued issues with access to the financial mainstream that many communities of color and small businesses of color have to deal with.”

When it comes to small business in America, banks have shown that they may not be the best at deciding who should get a loan, just like many Bachelor contestants aren’t always the greatest at deciding who should get a rose.

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