Talking Finance and Faith: Payday Loans and Franciscan Pawnshops

We sometimes hear from people deeply committed to one or both that religion and the market should keep to their separate spheres. In my Catholic faith tradition, there’s a long history of religious people taking positions on what makes financial transactions useful and just, and intervening to make reality closer to the ideal.

For much of Christian history, the Catholic Church opposed charging any interest for loans, which was regarded as sinful “usury.” In late antiquity, St. Augustine described loans as one form of charity: he assumed that the lender would charge no interest, providing a service to the needy borrower at some cost to themselves. He realized that many of those who need loans in order to get by are poor people whose needs should be at the forefront of Christian concern. Out of this same realization, some Italian Franciscans began to open pawnshops, called montes pietatis, in the 15th century, running them as charitable organizations to help poor people access small loans. As it became clear that these local practices were helping people in need, official Church teaching changed. In 1515, Pope Leo X proclaimed that charging “moderate” amounts of interest so that loan organizations could be maintained was legitimate under church law. (Despite this acknowledgement that lending at interest could be done morally, deep-rooted stigma against Jewish moneylenders, who had historically responded to Christians’ need for loans, affects European and US culture even today.)

If you hear a Christian call out “usury” today, like theologian Alex Mikulich does here, likely they’re not decrying all charging of interest but suggesting that a certain type of loan is predatory, unjust and harmful to the borrower. Catholic groups use this tradition effectively as they fight some of the most exploitative practices of payday lenders in states like Illinois, Kentucky, and Minnesota.

A new film, Spent: Looking for Change continues the dialogue about the payday loan industry. Two things are clear from this powerful film. First, many current practices of the payday loan industry are indeed exploitative and harmful to families who already find themselves on the edge. One family in the film estimates that by the time they pay off a loan of $450, they will have paid more than $1700 in interest. Another borrower was not allowed to pay off her loan until she could pay in full—racking up more interest although she could have been making payments, and eventually losing the car that she needed for work. Second, while payday lenders and check-cashing services charge fees that could accurately be described as usurious, they fill an otherwise unmet need. As many as 70 million people in the U.S. are excluded from the traditional banking system, because of issues like bad credit, no credit (a potential result of the cautious choice to avoid credit card use), or lack of geographic access to traditional banks.

The film is sponsored by American Express, which is announcing new financial products designed to help those underserved by the traditional financial system, like the people featured in Spent who turn to usurious lenders. This seems consistent with a trend noted in the New York Times earlier this year: in response to rising inequality within the U.S., companies are shifting their offerings to appeal to either very wealthy, or increasingly poor consumers. It’s encouraging, I suppose, that one result of this trend could be more affordable financial services for people who historically have needed them. But let’s not forget that high inequality comes with a host of other social ills.

Let’s also not assume that because the market is beginning to respond to this need, anti-poverty activists can just sit back and relax. The makers of Spent created a petition to legalize prize-linked savings accounts.  Supporting Elizabeth Warren’s plan to allow Post Offices to offer affordable financial services seems like another promising response. Watching and sharing Spent is a great way to keep the conversation going.

And I’d encourage people of faith, and everyone concerned about poverty, not to stop there. Microcredit agencies like Grameen America and Kiva Zip help individuals and groups—maybe even you, or your congregation—make interest-free loans to small-business owners in the US and abroad. Run on donations, they boast impressive repayment rates and help people in need avoid the most predatory operators in the financial system.

Call them today’s Franciscan pawnshops.




What We’re Reading this Week

Welcome to the second installment of What We’re Reading this Week, where we share 5 must-read articles about poverty in America that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Here are our top picks this week:

Paying Employees to Stay, Not Go, by Steven Greenhouse & Stephanie Strom (New York Times)

“If we really wanted our people to care about our culture and care about our customers, we had to show that we cared about them,” Mr. Pepper said. “If we’re talking about building a business that’s successful, but our employees can’t go home and pay their bills, to me that success is a farce.”

We’ve heard the refrain from conservative pundits and musty Intro Economics textbooks: raising the minimum wage will cause widespread job loss and hurt the economy overall. In practice, however, we often see the exact opposite outcome. In fact, states that raised their minimum wages this year saw higher levels of job growth. How can this be? Greenhouse and Strom show how employers who pay higher than the minimum wage actually benefit. Specifically, the article examines fast food chains like Boloco and Shake Shack, which offer workers competitive wage and benefit packages and yield positive returns like reduced turnover and enhanced customer service.

I Clean High School Bathrooms, and My New $15/Hour Salary will Change Everything, By Raul Meza (Washington Post)

I feel fortunate for what I have. I also feel tired a lot, from all the work and from lack of sleep; sometimes I get as little as two hours a night. But what I miss most is time with my son. He’s always asking, “Daddy, where are you going?” Leaving breaks my heart every time. When I think about making $15 an hour, I think mostly of the time that money could buy with my son.

A critical piece often left out of minimum wage debates are the stories of the workers and families who will benefit from a raise. Raul Meza is one such worker whose life is about to change, as his union just negotiated a contract that will raise the wages of 20,000 school workers to $15/hour by 2016. Because Meza has never made more than $10/hour, he’s constantly forced to forego time with his son to work evenings and weekends. As Meza anticipates what life will be like at his new wage, we’re reminded of how raising the minimum wage not only strengthens bank accounts, but also strengthens families.

50 Years After Civil Rights Act, Many Households of Color Still Struggle to Get Ahead, by Alicia Atkinson (CFED)

Many want to believe the injustice is over, yet we see over and over again how these factors compound and leave households of color with significantly lower amounts of wealth compared to white households. Specifically, the average African-American and Latino household still owns only six and seven cents, respectively, for every dollar in wealth held by the typical white family. At CFED, we know that income alone is not enough to succeed in the American economy. Having wealth and owning assets like a house or car can improve families’ lives by providing a stable place to live and reliable transportation to get to work.

July marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. While it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come in combatting systemic racial discrimination, Alicia Atkinson of CFED reminds us how far we still need to go, specifically in addressing the persistent racial wealth gap. As Atkinson explains, today “we face a quieter, more insidious discrimination” that erects barriers to building savings and wealth in communities of color. It’s important to look closely at the research Atkinson presents on how the financial market is currently serving communities of color in order. To best honor the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy, we must keep fighting to ensure that equal opportunity is not an unfulfilled promise.

This is What Happened When I Drove my Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps, by Darlena Cunha (Washington Post)

“We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic. That the judgment of the disadvantaged comes not just from conservative politicians and Internet trolls. It came from me, even as I was living it.”

Cunha details what it’s like to turn to social safety net programs like WIC and Medicaid as a white, college-educated woman from an affluent background. A constellation of factors led her to apply for assistance, including the housing market crash, a sudden layoff, and the unexpected birth of twins with serious medical needs. Cunha’s story underscores the fact that poverty is much more common and fluid than many realize; in fact, research shows that more than 40% of American adults will be poor for at least a year of their lives. Cunha relates to the stigma that so many people who receive public assistance face, detailing the judgment she experienced in the grocery store while using her food stamps. Of course, what sets Cunha apart from many other WIC recipients is that her story has a happy ending: she recovers financially and is able to keep her Mercedes. The article suggests the role of social privilege in helping people like Cunha regain financial footing.

Meet the First Poor Person Allowed to Testify at Any of Paul Ryan’s Poverty Hearings, by Bryce Covert (ThinkProgress)

Gaines-Turner certainly knows what it means to struggle. She and her husband have weathered two bouts of homelessness together and two of her children suffer from epilepsy while all three suffer from asthma, afflictions that mean they all have to take medication daily. “I know what it’s like to be homeless and to couch surf, to miss meals so my children can have a nutritional meal,” she said. “I know what it’s like to wake up every day wondering where the next meal will come from or how to pay the bills today or will someone come today and cut off the water. I’ve been through all of that.”

As the title suggests, Covert profiles Tianna Gaines-Turner, who testified at Paul Ryan’s fifth hearing on poverty on Wednesday. Of course, it seems commonsense that those who actually have turned to America’s safety net programs would be the most important people to listen to about how they work and can be improved. However, Covert explains how it has not been an easy road to ensure that voices like Ms. Gaines-Turner’s are included in the hearings. Ms. Gaines-Turner now has a chance to tell her powerful story about struggling to make ends meet while faced with serious obstacles. The question is, will lawmakers listen?

To keep up with our reading list throughout the week, make sure to like TalkPoverty on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@TalkPoverty)! You can also sign up for our weekly emails on the homepage.



Despite Harris v. Quinn, Domestic Workers Movement Thriving

Sometimes, when things fall apart, space emerges for new ideas to take hold. Since the Great Recession in 2008, the overall resistance from business interests to basic ideas such as raising wages has sustained. Yet there have been glimmers of an emerging pro-worker ideology, one that has begun to influence some state and federal policymakers. Among the most important developments are those stemming from the domestic workers’ movement—a movement that is working to ensure basic labor protections for nannies, housekeepers and caregivers, and that is building awareness about how essential the labor inside of homes is for the economy as a whole.

In my book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights, I discuss how domestic workers have successfully persuaded state and federal policymakers to include domestic workers within basic labor protections such as overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938, deliberately excluded domestic workers. This type of gendered exclusion results in higher levels of poverty for women. Domestic workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States.  Since our nation’s earliest days they have been excluded from basic labor protections, in large part because the work of the domestic sphere — dominated by women — has long been considered not “real” work.

In recent years, amid the economic turmoil so many Americans are experiencing, the message that domestic work is real work has begun to resonate with some policymakers. In 2010, the New York state legislature enacted the nation’s first domestic workers’ bill of rights, ensuring overtime, rest breaks and disability benefits for the state’s domestic workers. California followed suit in 2013 (though the legislative path wasn’t easy, with bills vetoed in 2006 and 2012). Hawaii also enacted legislation in 2013 that expands overtime protections for domestic workers. Massachusetts just enacted legislation that ensures a day of rest per week and protection from harassment on the job. Critically, President Obama and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis finally reversed the exclusion of domestic workers from the FLSA. These regulations would ensure that domestic workers are protected under wage and hour laws, and, barring delays, will be effective in 2015.

During these legislative battles, advocates saw clear shifts in how legislators understood the issue of domestic workers’ rights. New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver originally refused to bring the state bill of rights to the assembly floor. But over time he was persuaded to support the legislation, and upon enactment, he noted, “This bill rights a wrong that began when domestic workers were excluded from the labor protections created by the New Deal and brings us one step closer to our goal of dignity and fairness for all workers across this state.”

Clearly, the end goal is not just the new regulations. These campaigns for domestic workers’ rights help change the way that all of us — including our legislators — think about the value of workers. The movement is part of a larger movement demanding that all workers be paid a living wage; receive paid sick days that are good for workers and public health; and have the right to paid family leave that is critical for workers and those who need their care.

There may continue to be setbacks — such as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn on June 30, which weakened the collective bargaining power of many domestic workers. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for optimism. The heightened awareness among policymakers alone is a signal of progress, though it has to be sustained. My book advocates for more funding for community organizers who work hard to ensure that workers are aware of their rights and that new laws are enforced. Shining a light on emerging activism and its successes is also crucial.

The narrative of the economic collapse can indeed evolve into a better story – one in which the Great Recession eventually led to improved economic conditions for women and for all workers.




50 Years Later: Why We Must Remember

This has been a summer of half-century commemorations, wonderful and gruesome.

Last week we celebrated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the greatest and most important advance in civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  The week before we marked the horrible murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi, as part of a remembrance of the 1964 Freedom Summer.

We have to remember all of it.  So many American children growing up today – even college and graduate students – know nothing of it.  They have probably heard of Dr. King, but that’s about it.

We have to remember the murders and the lynchings just as we have to remember the Holocaust.  History does repeat itself.  There is no certain immunization against going backwards, but the best chance of preventing retrogression is to remember, to be vigilant, and to be ready to act when we see signs of it appearing.

And we have to remember the achievements.  Now is a time when many people despair of continuing progress toward justice in all of its forms – racial, economic, and social.

We need to remember the courage – of the people of Mississippi and residents of other Jim Crow states, and also those who came from elsewhere to fight for change.  These are people who put their lives on the line to confront awful injustice that seemed to be permanently entrenched. (And everyone should watch Stanley Nelson’s brilliant film, Freedom Summer, now showing on PBS.)

We need to remember the power of movements that expressed the power of many – really the only kind of power that can fight the power of money and bigotry today.

We need to remember that progressive politics made into law by elected officials can truly be the art of the possible, not merely a continuing exercise in futility.  We need to remember that deep and corrosive injustice need not take the explicit form of state-mandated segregation.  Mass incarceration, predatory lending and other strategies of residential segregation, horrible public schools, and more – these are the structural and institutional forms of racism in the 21st century.

The best chance of preventing retrogression is to remember, to be vigilant, and to be ready to act

I went to Mississippi with Robert Kennedy in 1967, where we saw extreme malnutrition that bordered on starvation – the ultimate result of which was the food stamp program we have today.  The near-starvation is gone but severe and persistent poverty persists.  The political class in Mississippi has discovered that – even with the right to vote and the fact of numerous African-American elected officials – assuring the continuance of deep poverty helps to keep the real power equation as it is.

To a great degree in Mississippi and elsewhere, the racism of the 21st century is one laced with a new apartheid of poverty and exclusion – one that also encompasses the people of Appalachia, of Indian reservations, and of towns like Port Clinton, Ohio where deindustrialization has engendered the same loss of hope and social disintegration.

One powerful point that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his must-read Atlantic article, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ is that 18th century rebellions against slavery included both slaves and white indentured servants, until the white power structure figured out how to pry the whites away from their interracial alliance.

The civil rights movement was, among other things, an endeavor of black and white together – a bonding based on a joint fight against evil even though the partners were not similarly situated in their suffering.

We need to once again find that kind of politics: one that cuts across racial, ethnic, and class lines to pursue those issues directly affecting the daily struggles of the people at the heart of the movement; and one that simultaneously maintains and articulates the identities and unique histories of people of color.  Neither will suffice by itself.

This, too, is part of the proper commemoration of the events of half a century ago.





Congress Again Ignores Poor People

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (Shriver Center) recently released its 2013 Congressional Poverty Scorecard, the only comprehensive analysis of the voting records of every Member of Congress on poverty issues.

The Shriver Center, working with experts in twenty different subject areas, identified the House and Senate floor votes in 2013 that had the greatest impact on the interests of poor people.  Each Member of Congress was then graded based on their performance on those votes.

The ratings are based on floor votes on a wide range of issues. In 2013, the hottest areas were votes relating to reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and budget and tax issues. The SNAP votes were on amendments that set program funding levels and sought to greatly restrict participation in the program. The budget and tax issues included spending cuts tied to raising the debt limit and Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, and budget resolutions and the budget agreement.

In addition, votes in many other areas were used, including funding for legal services, comprehensive immigration reform, international food aid programs, curtailing voting and labor rights, and the obligatory attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The results were not surprising. They showed that Congress is bitterly divided, with 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives graded at one extreme or the other, receiving an A, D or F. Only a small handful of moderates received a B or C.

As long as legislative districts lean heavily toward one party or the other, the only threat to a member’s reelection is a primary challenge from someone in the member’s own party who is more extreme. This inclines members to vote in an even more partisan way. In such an electoral environment, compromise is politically dangerous.

This partisan gridlock prevents Congress from passing laws that address our nation’s major problems. While this hurts everyone, it is especially detrimental to poor people who have the most to lose under the status quo.

Another major finding was that the Congressional delegations from states with the highest poverty rates tended to have the worst records in fighting poverty. Something other than the interests of a relatively large percentage of people living in poverty was motivating them.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty and pursued a hugely ambitious legislative agenda to that end. While great progress was made in the first decade after this war was declared, and poverty was cut by one-third, the Poverty Scorecard demonstrates how Congress has now abandoned the effort to fight poverty.

Take a look at the Scorecard. See how your House member and Senators voted and hold them accountable.