FAIR MONEY

Face to Face with Inequality

Marshmallows for Grownups

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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.

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