One of the things I love about working in a downtown church is the way it brings me into relationships with poor people. I love this not because I believe I am of much value to them beyond what I can give them to eat, drink or wear when they need it. I love it because the whole of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus teach us that the poor have a special relationship to the love and desire of God. In as much as we create hospitable places for the poor in our lives and world, we have done so for God. Creating hospitable places for the poor challenges me to think and act both with personal charity to those I encounter daily and politically in how I advocate to those in power.
Currently, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the larger collection of churches of which I am a part, has helped lead the way to rid communities and our country of predatory payday lending. These loans are typically small, cash advances given at exorbitant interest rates. These loans produce a debt that debtors struggle for months to pay back — further exacerbating the poverty that led them to take out the loan in the first place. These loans target desperate people in need of a few hundred dollars for regular expenses like rent or utility bills. In addition to fees to take out the loan, they also carry usurious interest rates that can reach up to 500 percent in some states. A CBF blog post on the subject notes that, “In Texas, the average borrower is likely to pay in excess of $800 for a $300 loan.”
Predatory lending exploits some of the most desperate people in our society and is incompatible with a Christian vision of a good, hospitable community that cares for the poor. Driven by a sincere, Christian concern for the poor, many Christians and denominations rally their members around this seemingly obvious truth to advocate for better laws protecting society’s most vulnerable from being taken advantage of by these predatory loans. Desire to protect the vulnerable from this practice is so strong that it has even united Cooperative and Southern Baptists in spite of their differing theological and political convictions.
I wholeheartedly endorse political advocacy for greater restrictions on predatory lending practices. By political advocacy, I mean Christians calling on elected officials and those in power to craft laws in the state that reflect God’s vision for a good society. Advocacy might take place in a variety of ways from protest marches to running for office, from letter writing campaigns to public demonstrations. Advocacy is neither the beginning nor the end of Christian care for the poor, but ought to be one extension of our call to care for “the least of these.”
My worry is that this strategy of singling out predatory lending as a central issue around which to organize Baptist political advocacy eschews deep, critical thinking about alternative economic arrangements that would address why the poor need these small loans in the first place. When all we look for are the payday lending signs, we miss the myriad of ways our world exploits the poor inhospitably. We end up playing Whack-A-Mole against those harming the poor when instead we should be looking for the source of the mole problem and filling all of the holes with good soil that allows for flourishing.
So what might a more comprehensive vision of advocacy look like? Predatory lending is designed to take advantage of desperate people in need of a few hundred dollars. Outlawing destructive lending practices and high interest rates will not remove the need that leads people to take those loans in the first place. If Christians want to eliminate predatory lending practices, we also need to look at the conditions that make those practices possible and profitable.
We have to start by identifying the poor. In America, children, the elderly, students, and the disabled make up 65 percent of people living below the poverty line. Approximately 20 percent more are caretakers of one of the former categories or those who have lost a job. So approximately 85 percent of the poor in America are children, the elderly, students, the disabled, caretakers and people who have lost a job.
This statistic confirms what many of us who see the poor in our churches on a regular basis already know: job skill training, financial literacy courses and better education will largely be ineffective in alleviating poverty for most people in America. The few poor people that attend my church or stop in for our Wednesday night fellowship meal all fall under one of the above categories. Market income will not reach their pockets with any sort of consistency.
Because roughly 80 percent of the poor live outside of market-based solutions to poverty, we need other strategies and political solutions to bring their income above the poverty line. These are the people that are most vulnerable to the exploitation of predatory lending, and playing defense against predatory lending will only go so far to helping them.
The inadequacy of market-based solutions ought to compel us to think of different avenues to raise the incomes of the majority of poor people. Because of this, churches and Christians ought to advocate in whatever ways they see fit for more direct income transfers to the poor. These can take a variety of forms. SNAP (more commonly known as “food stamps”) benefits could be expanded. A $300 monthly child allowance paid to parents would reduce the child poverty rate by 42 percent. The disabled are the most likely group of people to take out a payday loan. One way to reduce their dependency upon such loans is to advocate for increased disability benefits.
A focus on the transfer of income to the poor allows for a much more comprehensive and consistent approach to bringing people’s income above the poverty line and taking away the vulnerability that allows for predatory lenders to make a profit. If Christians see poverty as a political problem (as our work around predatory lending implies), then income transfers ought to be within the scope of our advocacy. This is not meant to replace Christian charity to the poor. When a person in our congregation is in need, we ought to meet that need or the love of God may not be in us. However, the type of political advocacy I am pushing for here goes hand in hand for a people who have learned to charitably give to those in need as God has given to all people.
Christians ought to work for the abolition of predatory lending. We also ought to work for the abolition of a society that would have predatory lending. In doing so, we offer the world a taste of what we know to be true in the Kingdom of God and what should be true in our congregations: the poor are welcomed and cared for because they are loved by God.