While there are many successful examples of inclusive finance in America, there is a growing buzz about "predatory" practices that take advantage of the poor. It's quite possible that a backlash—including regulation by Congress and prosecution by state attorneys general—could affect the legitimate efforts as well as the worst practices. I notice that there is a lot of debate, for example, about whether payday lending is predatory or legitimate microcredit.
BusinessWeek has a compelling cover story for the May 21 issue: "The Poverty Business Inside U.S. companies' audacious drive to extract more profits from the nation's working poor."
In recent years, a range of businesses have made financing more readily available to even the riskiest of borrowers. Greater access to credit has put cars, computers, credit cards, and even homes within reach for many more of the working poor. But this remaking of the marketplace for low-income consumers has a dark side: Innovative and zealous firms have lured unsophisticated shoppers by the hundreds of thousands into a thicket of debt from which many never emerge.
Federal Reserve data show that in relative terms, that debt is getting more expensive. In 1989 households earning $30,000 or less a year paid an average annual interest rate on auto loans that was 16.8% higher than what households earning more than $90,000 a year paid. By 2004 the discrepancy had soared to 56.1%. Roughly the same thing happened with mortgage loans: a leap from a 6.4% gap to one of 25.5%.
Some economists applaud how the spread of credit to the tougher parts of town has raised home- and auto-ownership rates. But others warn that in the long run the development could slow upward mobility. Wages for the working poor have been stagnant for three decades. Meanwhile, their spending has consistently and significantly exceeded their income since the mid-1980s. They are making up the difference by borrowing more. From 1989 through 2004, the total amount owed by households earning $30,000 or less a year has grown 247%, to $691 billion, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data available.