President Obama’s work on behalf of consumers is a central part of his legacy. When he took office eight years ago, our country was in the midst of the worst financial crisis in generations—a crisis Wall Street built by cheating consumers. Working with Democrats in Congress, President Obama took several important steps to make our financial system safer and to stop the kinds of consumer abuses that paved the way for the crisis. None of those changes was bigger than the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
It was a tough fight to get the CFPB passed into law. As Congress considered whether to create a new consumer agency, the big banks spent more than a million dollars a day lobbying against financial reform. But a grassroots network of people and organizations came together and fought back, and the Obama Administration stood firmly in support of a strong, independent consumer agency. Now, consumers across the country know there’s an agency in Washington that has their back.
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In the five and a half years since the CFPB has opened its doors, the agency has consistently delivered for working families across the country. It has returned nearly $12 billion directly to families who were tricked by big banks, payday lenders, debt collectors, and other financial institutions. It has acted aggressively to protect service members and their families from illegal foreclosures and other predatory actions. It has fielded more than one million consumer complaints, helping thousands of people in every state quickly and easily resolve disputes and recover unauthorized fees. And it has cracked down on banks that are ripping off their customers—culminating in the agency’s recent settlement and record fine in the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal.
The consumer agency also plays a critical role leveling the playing field for working families by implementing new rules for financial products. One notable example is with payday lending.
Payday loans are an enormous problem for families and communities across our country. Too often, people obtain these loans to cover things like care for a sick child or a broken car, but then find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt. Americans now spend over $7 billion each year in fees on payday loans, which can have interest rates of 200, 300, or even 400%. And as the CFPB has noted, there are more payday loan storefronts in America than there are McDonald’s restaurants—and that doesn’t even count all the payday lenders that exist exclusively online.
While access to credit is important, too many payday lenders have built their business models around trapping families with debts they can’t ever hope to repay. It’s like throwing bricks to a drowning man. The industry targets communities of color, contributing to the massive wealth disparity between these communities and white communities. Billions of dollars are moving from those who can least afford it directly into the pockets of lenders.
Cracking down on these kinds of payday lenders is one way to give families living in poverty a fighting chance—and that’s exactly what the CFPB is doing. When the agency set out to design a new payday loan rule, it did some of the most extensive research anyone has ever conducted on payday loans. The agency’s data revealed that most people who take out payday loans aren’t able to pay them back by the time they get their next paycheck. Because of that, over 80% of payday loans are renewed after less than two weeks.
The proposed CFPB payday rule is an important step in the right direction. It provides better protections for borrowers—including requiring lenders to assess if a borrower is able to repay the loan—and limits the number of consecutive loans. These restrictions will help ensure that working families can still access payday lending if needed, but the loans will be structured to provide more financial security, not less.
Despite the work the CFPB has done, the fight to protect consumers isn’t over—it’s really just beginning. All the important work the CFPB does—helping defrauded families, cracking down on the most predatory and abusive practices, bringing more transparency and competition to the market—is at risk if the incoming Trump Administration and congressional Republicans have their way. For years, the big banks and their allies have launched one shameless attack after another trying to gut the CFPB. Recently, just days after the CFPB’s settlement with Wells Fargo for cheating consumers was announced, both House and Senate Republicans advanced bills to weaken the agency. It’s up to all of us to fight back against these efforts and protect an agency that’s put billions of dollars back in the pockets of working families.
Wall Street may not like that the CFPB is standing up for consumers and holding big banks accountable—but the American people do. As a new president takes office, it’s critical that everyone who supports a strong consumer agency continues fighting to protect it and to ensure it can build on its record of success during the Obama Administration.
Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.