Thursday, February 24, 2005

Paycheck loans

I've just come back from Arizona, where I spent a few days in Tempe and Tucson. There's a general air of poverty to these places, not only because public process and civic accomplishment is measured in how many new miles of freeway have been built, but because there are paycheck-loan kiosks just about everywhere. I'd think they were simply the next generation in check-cashing storefronts, those enterprising replacements for actual banks in neighborhoods where banks won't open, catering, as Victor Ozols suggests, to illegal immigrants who must live a cash-only life, but often there'd be a paycheck-loan place in the shopping center with several banks, where you'd think competition between them alone would make one of the legitimate lenders take up the riskier trade. There were even paycheck-loan places that innhabited former Weinerschnitzels and old Filiberto's restaurants. I used to think that Mexican fast-food was the king of all hermit-crab businesses, but these paycheck-loan stands prove that on the scale calibrating the lowest common denominator with the highest profit margin, it stands as king. That business model is so exploitative that it can thrive where poverty, blight, or just plain common sense have driven out all the other bottom-feeders.

To be honest with you, I don't know how it works, and I have a hard time fathoming a life so hand to mouth that I would need an advance on my paycheck, which comes every other week. Presumably you get some large lump sum up front and then have your wages garnished like a deadbeat dad for the rest of your adult working life. I do know that in most states in the northeast, predatory lending is outlawed by usury laws, perhaps to protect the thriving loansharking racket for organized crime.

Is it simply that those living in Arizona are more indebted than the res tof the country, or is it that economic and social relations make the pervasive debt more overt? Perhaps there is a lingering stigma to being a debtor felt in the northeast, whereas those in the southwest boast of the size of their car payment as they would the horsepower of their Hemis. Maybe it's that the hodgepodge of new arrivals that characterize any Western city creates an environment where everyone's a stranger and shame isn't possible in the same way it is where your family is known. Part of becoming that ultimate consumer citizen, that untethered individual with maximum autonomy, unconstrained by tradition or duty, is becoming completely vulnerable to the pressures of paycheck loans -- in the absence of some community-based identity and its accompanying safety nets, one must do whatever he must to get the money needed to project the kind of identity he imagines for himsef, and if that means mortgaging everything, then so be it.

I am in absolutely no position to judge and my utopian imagination of a Mister Rogers universe of cooperative neighbors might be a bit naive, but the prevalence of these loan places conjures a Infernoesque atmosphere of demons devouring devils, of an ethics-free zone of bad decision-making, rampant hedonism, desperation, predation, and pitilessness. Some apocalyptic mixed metaphors for you: This paycheck-loan landscape is ground zero for consumerist fantasy gone totally amuck, the Baseline (Road) of a society that promotes competetive acquisition over communal values, barn burning over barn raising, daydream desires and impotent flailings after them over more constructive and achievable projects shared among neighbors. The pathetic need to consume in order to be somebody can generate no more searing critique than these flaming yellow kiosks in your neighborhood, reminding you how desperate your fellow humans can become, and how our culture affords the poor so few avenues to dignity that it seems worth it to them to mortgage half their weekly wage in order to buy a huge plasma screen TV or a shiny new pickup truck. When these paycheck-loans places thrive in a neighborhood, along with the Rent-to-own furniture outlets and the 99 cent stores, it's an unmistakable badge of shame that an entire community should (but doesn't) feel the sting of.

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