Helping the Poor by Denying Them Access to Money
In yet another case of good intentions gone bad, the bill Congress passed last year to reform the credit card industry is driving up the price of credit and eliminating many consumers from the credit card market altogether. Like millions of other Americans, I was just hit by a nearly $40 annual fee for a credit card I rarely use and have never missed a payment on, which is most likely attributable to the bill. At Reason, Katherine Mangu-Ward details some of the other damage the bill has inflicted so far:
Eight million Americans cut up their credit cards this year, according to new data out from credit bureau TransUnion. Some of those plastic deserters were folks who faced scary economic conditions and decided to voluntarily cut back on debt spending. But for others, it wasn’t a matter of choice.
Millions of customers found themselves unceremoniously ejected from the ranks of the card-worthy thanks to last year’s Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act, or Credit CARD Act. The new rules were supposed to “protect American credit card holders” by stopping “unfair rate increases.” Instead, credit card companies prepared for their new straitened circumstances by booting customers who would no longer be profitable (read: poor people and other risky borrowers), and hiking interest rates for others. American Express even offered $300 bonuses to customers willing to pay off their cards and close their accounts—a deal designed to entice the kind of cash-strapped customers AmEx was soon to find less lucrative.
But as the new rules make it less appealing for credit card companies to offer their services to certain segments of the population, most of those people don’t revert to a cash-only state of nature. The appetite for credit doesn’t vanish when credit cards are harder to get. Instead, customers turn to options like installment plans, layaway, and payday lending for quick credit—and the fees they pay for those options are as high or higher than the credit card costs Congress and the White House found so objectionable. And in an economy that runs on plastic, debit cards replace credit cards for everyday purchases.
Congress has destroyed credit card access for many low income individuals, but many states have already eliminated second- and third-best options like payday loans, and there is pressure for Missouri or its localities to follow suit. For instance, in this editorial from the Springfield News-Leader, Pastor Roger Ray argues that Springfield should ban payday loans because “on a per capita basis, no state takes such reprehensible advantage of the desperate poor, fueling drug and alcohol addiction and gambling addiction with easy-to-get but hard-to-pay-back loans.” The rest of the editorial is packed with evidence-free assertions, overblown rhetoric, and enough fallacies that it would take a book to refute them all, so I will confine myself to the consequences that would follow from such a ban.
As I showed in my op-ed about this subject earlier this year, restricting payday loans leads to more bounced checks, complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about lenders and debt collectors, utility shutdowns, and higher rates of bankruptcy. Payday loans are far from the best form of credit, but, in some cases, they are the best available to people. If Pastor Ray wants to eliminate payday loans in his community, I would encourage him and his congregation to start a fund to lend to low-income individuals at lower interest rates (or for free). If enough people share his sentiment, the payday loan industry can be eliminated without the force of law because very few people will opt for a more expensive loan over a cheaper one.
However, if the city government eliminates the loans by law, debtors will be forced to turn to even worse alternatives. I’m relatively certain Ray believes that a ban on payday loans would improve the lot of the poor, but that is an empirical question that most studies of the issue have answered with a resounding “no.” So, in the famous words of Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”