PAYE Stands for …?

Anna Bahr presents an analysis of the impact of Obama’s recent “Pay as You Earn” legislation, suggesting that it might really stand for PAY Extra. According to Bahr, “PAYE tends to save money only for those low-income borrowers who have incurred an unusually large federal debt.” Bahr offers a few examples of people with more usual loan amounts, who would actually pay more under PAYE than under current rules, because as they repay more slowly they will incur more interest on their outstanding loans.

Two Questions Suffice?

According to Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, the FAFSA could consist of just 2 questions and more people would manage to go to college and stay there until they get their degree (The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid).

I have a lot of other questions. For instance, what would happen then? Would we have more college grads with good jobs and solid prospects? Or would we have even more young adults with staggering educational debt and a hard time finding a halfway decent job? It’s instructive to consider the post-graduation realities laid out in It’s Official: The Boomerang Won’t Leave. According to that article, “more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning that they make substandard wages, in jobs that don’t require a college degree.”

One last question: how do you fix that?


Reflection as a Luxury Good

Maria Konnikova has an excellent article in the New York Times today, entitled “No Money, No Time: The Poor Are Under a Deadline that Never Lifts.” She sums up the experimental work of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir on the effects of poverty and works her way backwards to reality, applying their conclusions to the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap. In the lab, people in artificially induced states of poverty perform worse than people operating under conditions of abundance. Mullainathan and Shafir also conclude that they tend to solve for the present moment more–meaning they borrow, handicapping their future performance.

Mullainathan and Shafir decompose poverty into three components: lack of money, lack of time, and lack of bandwidth (by which the mean the ability do dedicate sufficient mental resources to any given problem so as to make good decisions). Their argument is that a lack of money correlates with a lack of time in the real world, and that both conspire to reduce available bandwidth for decision-making.

Shafir recommends designing programs to reduce bandwidth demands and uses the FAFSA as an example:

“If I give people a very complicated form, it’s a big demand on cognitive capacity,” Mr. Shafir says. “Take something like the Fafsa” — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — “Why is pickup for the low-income families less than 30 percent? People are already overwhelmed, and you go and give them an incredibly complicated form.”

To him, the obvious conclusion is to radically change our thinking. “Just like you wouldn’t charge them $1,000 to fill out a form, you shouldn’t charge them $1,000 in cognitive complexity,” he says. One study found that if you offer help with filling out the Fafsa form, pickup goes up significantly.

Interestingly, their work also seems to support one of the tentative findings from FAIR Money’s Payday loan study, that talking about one’s situation, even if only to a researcher who offered no comment, seemed to have an effect on decisions about how to handle one’s financial dilemmas. By paying people to participate in our study and talk about their situation, we paid them to take time to reflect, alleviating some of the pressure on two of those three dimensions of poverty.

Economic Realities of the 21st Century

The Economic Policy Institute calculates that in 2010, six members of the Walton family siphoning profits from the Walmart empire were together worth $89.5 billion. That amount of wealth is equal to the total value held by the bottom 41.5% of Americans, a staggering 48.8 million US households.

For more insight into how Walmart beggars low-income families and lets the rest of us pay for the consequences, see the PBS documentary Store Wars or How McDonald’s and Walmart became Welfare Queens.

Carrying Life in a Backpack

2014 marks the anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty.  50 years later, in a series on American hardship, Trip Gabriel writes about entrenched rural poverty in his article “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back”. The article is a heartbreaking look at how government has failed the rural poor in Appalachia, a place where economic opportunities are scarce and roughly 47% of the population relies on social security as their only personal income. Their story reflects that of many, disenfranchised and disinvested in across the United States, as the Unconditional War on Poverty waned in popularity, leaving young people with little hope and few options. As Donald Bolden, quoted in the article, says, “‘Ain’t that a shame: I’m 30 years old and carrying my life around in a backpack.’”

Affirmative Action the Conservative Way

Evan Mandery points out that so-called “legacy” preferences in college applications can be worth about 150 points on the SAT’s to the privileged applicant whose privileged parents got in to the elite schools before the competition got really stiff. I think non-legacies should start thinking about bringing suit for being excluded unfairly despite their own hard work.

Forum on Student Debt in Palo Alto 4/24

pyd poster

Jeffrey Greger of the FAIR Money team will be joining Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski (author of the Students’ Bill of Rights), and Dave Walter (Stanford Law School’s Associate Director of Financial Aid) this Thursday in Palo Alto for a public forum on student debt. We encourage you to take part if you’re available, and look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, April 24, in the Fireside Room at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, 505 E Charleston Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

Event Agenda:
6:00pm – Doors open*
6:30pm – Discussion begins
— Opening remarks, moderated discussion, audience questions
7:45pm – Event concludes

*Light refreshments will be provided.

How Exactly Do Colleges Allocate Their Financial Aid? They Won’t Say.

An article written by Marian Wang on Pro Publica poses the sticky question in the title above. To receive financial aid, a student and their family must undergo a thorough investigation into their financial lives. To quote from the article:

Many universities have access to comprehensive financial profiles, sometimes down to the type of cars a family drives. Some analyze patterns and interpret even the most subtle indicators from students, such as the order in which schools are listed on the federal financial-aid application, or even how long a student stays on the phone with an admissions officer.

However, information transfer is not a two-way street. Universities, even the most charitable, generally consider the metrics used to offer financial aid packages to be in the same category as state secrets. Again from the article:

Take Newman University, a Catholic liberal-arts college based in Kansas.

What are the actual criteria the college uses to determine who gets aid and how much?  “That’s proprietary information,” said Pam Johnson, Newman’s interim dean of admissions and financial aid. “It’s part of our competitive strategy.”

The full article is well worth your time.

Marshmallows for Grownups

In a recent New York Times article, Shaila Dewan wrote that “Encouraging low-income people to borrow money, and then to get a credit card enabling them to borrow more, may seem counterintuitive or even a little risky.”

It’s not at all counterintuitive if you realize that credit is doled out based on a version of the famous marshmallow test: those disciplined souls who can refrain from using the credit that they have are worthy of more credit. Or: much shall be given to those who have their needs and desires under a tight rein. I recently learned that if you use 15-45% of the credit that you have, your FICO score goes up. Now, some people will be able to game this really easily. You can shut down a credit card if you are low in the “approved range.” You can open another credit card account if you’re a little on the high side. These are just cosmetic changes and can’t have any real bearing on your power to repay any additional debt. All the same, I’m fairly confident that it will turn out to be true that those who have the wherewithal to manage their spending to stay in the credit usage band will turn out to be more financially successful and able to repay debts in the long run. Consider the following reasons:

  1. Their needs and their income are reasonably matched, so they are in a pretty sustainable pattern. (That is, most of them probably don’t have to consider that the marshmallows lying on the table may be the only way to feed their kids today.)
  2. They get really inexpensive credit and so they can buy a house, get a boat, start a business, and so on, without taking scary risks, like poor people with low credit scores have to do.
  3. The probability that a health-related expense will have brought them to their knees is probably also quite a bit lower, as they are more likely to be in jobs with decent health plans attached.  (Perhaps the Affordable Care Act will rejigger the equations a little bit here.)

Given the financial regime we live under, getting poor people to improve their credit rating by showing that they have the discipline to leave the marshmallows on the table makes perfect sense. They probably are a better bet to repay whatever credit they use than the poor devils who are daily trying to figure out which bill they can pay this week and whether they have enough gas to swing by the food pantry.

I suspect that it’s nevertheless highly “counterintuitive” (as per Dewan) because there is something very squirrelly about the ethics of the case. It is cruel to dangle money in front of folks who desperately need it and then reward them for not spending it. It is just another example of levying a surcharge on poor people for being poor. Punishing and further impoverishing the poor doesn’t sound quite right to most of us, even if we are willing to concede that the logic of the financial institutions getting wealthier by this mechanism have a corner on the publicly recognized logic.

I think this is why the vast majority of parents fail to raise their kids by the general principles brought to bear by the financial institutions that rule much of our lives. I have only ever run into one person, an Ethiopian, who had received parental training that prepared him for this reality. His parents gave him an allowance in the same spirit that we receive credit cards–if he spent it, he would be grounded. While this young man thought that he had learned something useful from his frequent punishments, he didn’t think he would raise his own kids that way.

We may bow to the power of the banks in the management of our financial affairs and in our social judgment, but our intuition tells us pretty clearly that setting traps for the most vulnerable among us is no way to treat people.

How about that post office?

Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor with an interest in the “social contract” underlying the financial industry, proposes that the post office start offering financial services to the underbanked.  It makes sense, she says, because the postal service has a presence in neighborhoods that commercial banks have pulled out of. It’s the best idea I have heard of to apply positive pressure on the subprime financial services industry and change the competitive landscape those services operate in.