ACORN has a new ally in the battle against predatory lending: the Pentagon.
Paul Fain reports in Mother Jones:
Military leaders are starting to wage a war on the home front, and the enemy is right outside the gates of some of the nation's largest bases. There, amid the fast-food joints and the tattoo parlors, are the payday loan offices with neon signs that offer instant cash and easy money. Soldiers and sailors, often struggling to make ends meet, go in for a quick short-term loan, unaware of exorbitant interest rates — typically 390 percent annually — that can lead into a cycle of debt. …
Steve Tripoli, the author of a National Consumer Law Center report on financial schemes that target military personnel, says that payday lenders depend on customers who have jobs and bank accounts but are just getting by. Sailors and soldiers fit the profile perfectly, he adds, noting that they also face military discipline for unpaid debts.
Industry officials deny that they prey on military personnel, saying that only 2 percent of their customers are active-duty military. But that figure is nearly four times the percentage of active-duty military in the total population. And [Navy Capt. John E. Cohoon Jr.] is sure that the industry is singling out enlisted men and women for special attention. "Military personnel," he says, "are ripe targets for consumer predators."
This is promising.
Payday lenders can swindle most working-class Americans without much fear of public condemnation. But exploiting soldiers and sailors during wartime is another matter.
Many Americans are glibly willing to accept the idea that others' poverty results mainly from "bad choices" (as though the poor lived in a world brimming with options). But America's enlisted personnel are exempt from these popular mythologies about the "deserving poor." By preying on members of the military, therefore, the legal loansharks have provided a toehold for those who oppose their exploitative industry.
Payday lenders have been able to operate largely because they are perceived as ripping off only poor urban black people and poor rural white people. As long as that is the perception, it will be nearly impossible to assemble enough political will to put a stop to them. But if they become perceived as ripping off a population that enjoys more public sympathy — "the troops" — that political will then becomes easier to find.
This is unfortunate. It's not how the world ought to be and it does not speak highly of our national character. I wish it were otherwise. I wish we had enough of a sense of solidarity — of "liberty and justice for all" — tht the exploitation of any group of Americans would arouse the wrath of the public.
But the sad truth is we don't live in such a world. Most Americans — and the lawmakers who represent them — don't give a rat's ass if predatory lenders exploit working-class black people. But they can be made to care about the fact that predatory lenders are also ripping off America's enlisted personnel.
Thus we have an opening. We have an opportunity to wrap ourselves in the unassailable flag and to go after payday lenders in defense of motherhood, apple pie and The American Soldier. In doing so, we may be able to secure legal protections that will defend other working Americans as well.