Thursday, April 23, 2015

Making Our Voices Heard

Last week in Montgomery, over 60 Alabamians gathered at the state house to rally around issues like payday lending, the housing shortage, raising the minimum wage, and lowering utility rates. We gathered to fight the injustice of our current system. We gathered to call for opportunities for everyone in Alabama to have access to the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. We gathered to make our voices heard. 

It was a gorgeous day in the capitol, as we listened to Kimble Forrister, Alabama Arise's director, share at a press conference about the need for new revenue to expand Medicaid. Later we had the opportunity to speak with several congressmen at a legislative luncheon.  I had my first experience with lobbying, which is really a fancy word for getting to know your legislator and telling her/him what it important to you. I decided to make my voice heard.

During my year at ARM, I have become more and more intrigued by the relationship between poverty and government, and the role we as citizens play in changing this dynamic. Participating in events like legislative day with Alabama Arise has reiterated in my mind the necessity of advocacy. We can (and still should) try to relieve the effects of poverty with direct services, but we must also rally for systemic change. Alabama Arise is a community of Alabamians that is committed to this organizing of the public in order to address poverty issues in our state. Arise is committed to making our voices heard.

Recently I have researched the affect predatory lending has on low-income individuals' situations. Racking up debts with multiple companies not only puts families in financial peril, but it can get them in trouble with the law, cause foreclosure on their home, or demand forfeiting of their only form of transportation (in the case of title loans). In the words of Representative Danny Garrett in a recent article, "A business model, built on an insurmountable interest rate so as to ensure repeat business - trapping a borrower on a debt treadmill, paying only interest for months and months, never touching the principal - is incomprehensible to me...and offends even the average sensibility." President Obama even visited Birmingham in March to make his voice heard on the seriousness of payday lending in Alabama.

Many of the low-income families we work with in rural areas of Alabama are especially affected by these issues because their towns have limited resources available and experience little or no economic growth. I have met individuals who are struggling to pay back debts from companies like Check-into-Cash and Always Money. These businesses promise quick and easy money, but more often than not exploit customers by charging exorbitant interest rates of up to 456% on a $500 loan. The high interest fees eat up a family's monthly income and leave no money left for food, mortgage payments, and doctor's visits. Are these voices being heard?

A month ago, I was invited by my mentor, who is a local pastor, to share about predatory lending at his church's local food pantry. As I shared about the dangers of this type of lending, I saw many nods and heard a few amens in the pews. Hearing those stories, it is clear that payday lending is not just an issue, but a social problem that affects real people. After my brief presentation, a woman came up to me and shared that she owed hundreds of dollars to companies like these. We talked for a bit...I didn't know a lot of options for her except to try to pay back the loans as fast as she could. And to make her voice heard.
So what is the next step? Borrowers don't have to face this alone. We can stand in solidarity with those who are suffering under this horribly oppressive system. Talk to your congressman. Send a personal letter about how you are affected by payday lending. Get people organized around an issue you care about.

Let's make our voices heard.