Plastic meltdown

By Michelle Chen Mar 09, 2009

As the banking system takes a nosedive, credit card companies are looking to cut their losses. And consumers—particularly low-income people and people of color—are being hit with a variety of creative methods. James Surowiecki at the New Yorker observes some desperate measures employed by credit card companies as they try to insulate themselves from a subprime-esque meltdown after years of unbridled, overheated growth.

They’re shutting down accounts, shrinking credit lines, and, in some cases, actually paying customers to go away. American Express recently offered some of its customers three hundred dollars if they would pay off their balance and close their account…. This is a pretty startling change of direction for the lords of plastic. For decades, they’ve been deluging Americans with come-ons (in 2007, 5.2 billion offers for new cards were sent out), so much so that, as of 2006, there were nearly 1.5 billion charge cards in circulation. And these cards did not go unused: between 2000 and 2006, even as Americans’ real income was essentially stagnant and their savings rate negligible, credit-card borrowing rose by about thirty per cent.

The retrenchment of the plastic industry will heavily impact the same people getting wrecked by the overarching economic crisis. According to the advocacy group Demos, crippling debt—including credit card balances as well as payday loans and risky mortgages—has left Black and Latino households lagging far behind whites in wealth and economic resiliency. In a letter to Congress last year, Demos explained that Black and Latino cardholders are also more vulnerable to having their finances further sapped by high interest rates and fees. The industry keeps families strapped with limits on how and when people pay off their debts, threaded with fine-print rules that easily elude people already consumed with joblessness, crumbling home equity or devastating medical expenses.

In 2004, of those with credit cards, 84 percent of African-American households and 79 percent of Latino households carried credit card debt compared with 54 percent of white households. Over 90 percent of African-American families earning between $10,000 and $24,999 had credit card debt. Meanwhile, only seven percent of white cardholders are charges interest rates over 20 percent, but 15 percent of African-American cardholders and 13 percent of Latino cardholders pay such rates.

That’s why advocates have pushed for a credit card holders’ Bill of Rights to stem some of the most insidious practices. For all the hand-wringing over “personal responsibility” in Congress, it may be time to revisit the industry that has fattened itself off of consumer debt for years–and implement protections for the most vulnerable communities before yet another wave crests in the financial crisis.