Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: The High Cost(S) of Being Poor

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I have previously written about different poverty traps in America, including our outdated criminal justice system (the “prisoner paradox”) and the developmental impacts of stress passed from mother to child. If these poverty traps seemed a bit abstract, consider a more traditional poverty trap–poor people shut out of traditional credit markets and relying on “payday” loans:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created at President Obama’s urging in the aftermath of the financial crisis, took its most aggressive step yet on behalf of consumers on Thursday, proposing regulations to rein in short-term payday loans that often have interest rates of 400 percent or more.

“We are taking an important step toward ending the debt traps that are so pervasive in both the short-term and longer-term credit markets,” Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement on Thursday.

The borrowing patterns speak to a stark reality underpinning the roughly $46 billion payday loan industry: The working poor in America, a group with virtually no savings and little access to traditional bank loans, borrow to cover basic expenses.

In drafting the rules, according to interviews with people briefed on the matter, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its director, Mr. Cordray, wrestled with how to protect some of the most vulnerable consumers, without choking off credit entirely.

Driving the proposal was an analysis of 15 million payday loans by the consumer bureau that found that few people who have tapped short-term loans can repay them. Borrowers took out a median of 10 loans during a 12-month span, the bureau said. More than 80 percent of loans were rolled over or renewed within a two-week period.

Nearly 70 percent of borrowers use the loans, tied to their next paycheck, to pay for basic expenses, not one-time emergencies — as some within the payday lending industry have claimed.

Until now, payday lending has largely been regulated by the states. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s foray into the regulation has incited concerns among consumer advocates and some state regulators who fear that payday lenders will seize on the federal rules to water down tougher state restrictions. Fifteen states including New York, where the loans are capped at 16 percent, effectively ban the loans.

Martin Wegbreit, a legal aid lawyer in Virginia, called payday loans “toxic,” noting that “they are the leading cause of bankruptcy right behind medical and credit card debt.”

The current economic model of low minimum wages and high payday loan fees drives people into poverty, triggering welfare payments. The U.S. government is basically transferring welfare funds to the payday loan industry.

Proposed CFPB regulations don’t go far enough, a maximum cap on loan repayments is needed. There is room for generous profit margins to compensate for the risk of lending to low income individuals without creating a “debt-trap”.

The stress and time dedicated to satisfying debt collectors amplifies the cost of being poor. Surely it would be more effective to provide access to credit, instead of wringing societies least financially secure through the payday loan system. Perhaps more money would be spent on its intended purposes, instead of paying off predatory loans.

Part of the solution could be using Post Offices as low cost banks for the poor. Sure there would be costs associated with effectively providing financial services, but the physical infrastructure and a trustworthy brand already exist. Furthermore, such a plan would provide renewed social value to an American Institution constantly under budgetary scrutiny.

Postal Banks would inject competition into the credit market, leading to better services at more competitive rates. Even if Post Office banks operated at a loss (say, giving preferential rates to low income borrowers for certain purposes), this loss may be more than offset by reduced spending on entitlement programs. More research on the cross-section between welfare recipients and payday loan borrowers is needed.

It is not a question of which of these poverty traps exists–they all exist and for some people are mutually reinforcing. This is one of the reasons social mobility is such a difficult  issue to address. Countering these different reinforcing poverty traps require the right mix of regulation, fiscal policy (progressive taxation, adequate spending on welfare programs and public services), and livable minimum wages.

In the end, lower income Americans need to overcome negative perceptions of government and vote in large numbers. Again the time crunch associated with poverty rears its ugly head; voting isn’t just a decision to go to the polls, it is also a time commitment that many cannot afford.

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2 thoughts on “Economic Outlook: The High Cost(S) of Being Poor

  1. Pingback: Being Poor

  2. Pingback: Economic Outlook: The “Neighborhood Effect” on Social Mobility | Normative Narratives

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