Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is the Pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.
I walk through the shiny car salesroom, down the hall, into my comfortable business manager office, and find a file waiting on my desk. I thumb through the forms that I see regularly, but notice that the numbers that are filled in are quite unusual. The cost of the car is well above the Blue Book recommendation, the interest rate is twenty-two percent, and to top it all off, there’s a high-priced warranty attached. I enter my boss’ office with the papers in hand and ask, “What is this?” She continues looking down and shuffling papers as she answers, “The deal’s done, Carol. You just need to have them sign.” “It’s done?” I say, closing my eyes and letting out a weary breath. “Yup.” “What bank would do this? It’s way above Blue Book and the rate’s too high. And what about the warranty? What company covers a seven-year-old Yugo, with so many miles on it? We all know this is going to be repossessed in a couple of months.” “It’s done,” She emphatically puts down her newly stacked files and finally looks up at my worried face. “Listen, Carol, with their income, they’re lucky to be getting a car at all. Now go do your job.”
I walk back into my office, where I see a young couple sitting, waiting in their t-shirts and blue jeans. They’re clearly excited about their purchase, and I greet them with a meager smile. At this point, I’ve made up an alternative scenario in my mind, about what I wish I could have done, about what I would do now. I imagine that I close my office door and counsel the couple not to go through with it. Then, I get up from my seat and quit, right then and there. But I don’t do these things. I do my job. I point out the interest rate, and the amount that they would accrue if they pay the loan on schedule. I tell them exactly how much the warranty will cost them. When their thrill doesn’t fade, I show them all the signature lines and hold my breath while they take turns signing away. I shake their hands, give them my card, and let them leave my office.
Two months and sixty migraine headaches later, I finally do quit my job and apply for seminary.
This happened more than ten years ago and, to my knowledge, it only happened once. But one time was enough to make me complicit. It was also enough to make me very aware of the shadow side of the finance business, and its role in digging a deeper hole of debt for the working poor. As a pastor, while working with people in some of the poorest areas of the country, I realize that things have gotten a whole lot worse. It’s now commonplace for lenders to sell Adjustable Rate Mortgages, with interest rates that increase rapidly after five years. Loan officers, who are supposed to be counseling college students on behalf of the school, are receiving financial incentives and gifts from particular lenders. Credit card companies set up tables on campuses, offering t-shirts and key chains to teenagers who will not have any income for four years. Now, it is accepted that a middle-class, home-owning family might pay more than twenty percent interest on an auto loan.
All credit is not created equally. If a person shows the slightest measure of irresponsibility by missing a payment or accruing too much debt, he or she will be presented with a higher interest rate. Higher rates are also given to those who have been completely responsible: A person with a low income will be charged more for a debt. In short, those who can afford it the least, will pay the most. When people have to have a car, a house, or an education, the end becomes more important than the means, and they don’t always make the wisest decisions. Lenders realize this, and they regularly victimize the most vulnerable in our society. So, it’s no wonder that bankruptcies boom, mortgage foreclosures soar, and student loan scandals erupt all around us. “It’s become like the Wild West,” Elizabeth Warren, economist at Harvard University, says as she describes the predatory nature of our lenders. The countering logic says that people should be financially savvy. They ought to know better. They should know when they’re signing a bad deal and live with the consequences. That young couple in my office should have been personally responsible. The teenager should be smarter when she accepts the plastic at twenty-eight percent interest. The family should understand that their mortgage payment’s going to increase dramatically after five years. Furthermore, when the bank takes a high risk on low-income people, then the institution ought to be paid more for the high probability of foreclosure. So, who’s to blame for this breakdown in our society? Can we blame the lenders? For a long time, they were not doing anything illegal, and it was their job is to watch out for their bottom line, to make as much money as possible. Can we blame the borrowers? They write their names on the bottom line of pages and pages of tiny type. A person would need a degree in law and finance to understand the wording around those complex transactions.
As Christians, we’ve all become complicit. Warren’s right, we look like the Wild West when we’ve been called to live as a just society. We have been commanded to make sure that the needy are not crushed and the poor are not oppressed; yet, we look away when the poor and young are financially victimized. In our blindness, we have created a lifetime of bondage and unimaginable consequences for the least of those in our society. We can no longer rely on institutional benevolence. We can no longer expect that every person signing documents understands the full ramifications of the transactions. As long as we let the burden rest on one of these parties, we will not be able to solve this social crisis.
However, if we can understand that we carry this weight upon each of our shoulders, we can begin to find solutions, as faithful people. We can call for an end to predatory lending practices. We can fight to put caps on interest rates. We can kick the credit card companies off of our college campuses. We can demand that university loan officers work for education and on behalf of the students, rather than for the financial institutions. We can call for fair treatment for the working poor. When we begin to see that we all share the burden, we can put more effort into educating adults and children on the dangers of institutional borrowing. We can ensure that the working poor do not put their entire paycheck into inflated interest payments. We can encourage each college student to weigh the cost and benefits of his or her education. We can begin to lift up the poor in our midst and we can live just lives.