Oregonian opinion columnist Elizabeth Hovde wrote an execrable column the other day that proposed cutting food stamps for the "not so needy" -- you know, the folks with smartphones and on foodstamps.
Hovde's column shows that if she ever had any understanding of just how damn expensive it is to be poor in America, her perch of privilege has long since helped her forget that crucial fact. So I wrote a letter to the editor in response, which they ran today (below).
If you have no idea what I mean when I say it's really costly to be poor in America, click the image over there, which is to a great book, Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy, which every politician in America should have to read and pass a test on before being allowed to legislate.
Letter: Cellphones don't always signal prosperity
So commentary columnist Elizabeth Hovde thinks that we should stop giving food stamps to the not so needy, whom we can all recognize because they have both cellphones and SNAP cards ("Stop feeding the not so needy," Sept. 8)? Whenever the well-off write about how the not-really-needy folks are sponging off public benefits for their lavish cellphone-using lifestyle, I know that these writers have never been in the death grip of a boa constrictor service contract.
Boa constrictor contracts work like this: The company advertises a great monthly rate that you can easily afford when things are going OK for you financially. That's the rate that is splashed all over the flyers and posters and TV and radio ads. That rate is just sucker bait.
Then something happens: You're laid off, your hours cut or your partner's are, you come down with a bad case of the doctor copays or car repairs, your bus system quits running on weekends. It doesn't matter why you can no longer afford the service that you could once handle. Because no matter why, you are going to be told that you can only cancel or switch to a cheaper plan by paying several hundred dollars first. And if you just cancel the traditional way, by not paying, you are going to find yourself hounded by collection agencies for the monthly charges, plus the penalties, and then sued for them, plus court costs and attorney fees, and you'll have your wages garnished and your credit ruined. All because you couldn't afford to pay a penalty to stop a service contract you could no longer handle.
We need to do two things: Force companies to fully disclose how much their service contracts really cost, and let struggling folks cancel without getting hammered with penalties.
On the first, our motto should be "Service Contracts Oughta Reveal Everything," which spells SCORE.
SCORE would mean that anything that comes with an early-cancel penalty -- cellphone, Internet, satellite TV, gym membership, alarm system -- the company would have to tell you, in big bold type, at signup time, the true total of all the payments you must make to get past any penalties. That's first.
Second, we should require that contracts with early-cancel penalties must have waivers so that any customer on public benefits (such as SNAP, Medicaid, public housing) can cancel a contracted service without penalty.
Until we do a much better job of making sure that everyone knows what they're getting into with service contracts (with SCORE disclosures) and until we prevent early-cancel penalties from putting the squeeze on the poor, I suggest that Hovde just be thankful for the privilege that allows her to casually equate having a cellphone with being "not so needy." I see plenty of consumers who are being squeezed to death by contracts that they would love to escape, if it didn't cost more to cancel the contracts than to keep paying.
Gear is a Salem attorney.
Another Oregon attorney writes:
Apparently, Ms. Hovde must not realize that the people who qualify for food assistance generally have the least expensive and crappiest version of everything that she and her family rely on for their daily life, like:
* generic unhealthy processed food;
* clothing from thrift stores or Wal-Mart;
* cars with duct tape—if at all;
* unattractive and often unsafe housing;
* cheap and sometimes dangerous toys with little educational value for their children;
* less responsive medical care;
* less responsive public safety providers;
* crappier schools;
* crappier neighborhood infrastructure;
* three-year-old game systems because it’s cheaper to entertain three kids with a game system then taking them to the moves once a month; etc.
She also apparently doesn’t understand life changes. I often see my clients qualifying for food assistance post-divorce when they already have nice cars (with zero value), good clothes (that won’t be replaced), smart phones on a family plan (that now isn’t being paid by the ex), three children and a spouse who is reluctant to provide adequate support.
I also bet Ms. Hovde has never seen the 10 page application for state assistance asking for the income information for everyone in the applicant’s household, and asking for the value of the persons vehicle, and other worldly possessions….
I’ve seen some real cases of benefits fraud in my work—eg. a trust-funder collecting TANF, OHP, SNAP who then faked earning $15K per year to claim an Earned Income Credit on his federal returns— so I know they exist, but anything that makes it harder for poor people to get help is a really bad idea.
(hat tip to "The Housekeeping Report"
)NCOA Issues Updated Guide for Seniors Considering a Reverse Mortgage
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) today issued the 2013 version of Use Your Home to Stay at Home™, the official reverse mortgage consumer booklet approved by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). The guide is designed to help seniors understand the pros and cons of a reverse mortgage. Reverse mortgages allow homeowners who are 62 or older to convert home equity into cash while remaining in the home. Amy Ford, director of NCOA’s Reverse Mortgage Counseling Services Network, called the guide “an older homeowner’s best resource when it comes to examining whether a reverse mortgage is right for them.” A free copy of the guide is available (download the pdf by clicking here).
Lots of good discussion about reverse mortgages lately:
And for a "straight from the horse's mouth" take on that, note the name of this publication - dsnews, a publication for the "default servicing" industry:
Reverse Mortgages Puts Confused Homeowners at Risk of Foreclosure 06/28/2012 By: Tory Barringer The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a report Thursday showing that although reverse mortgages are meant to help borrowers in retirement, they are in fact causing problems for many who don’t fully understand them. A reverse mortgage is a type of home loan that lets older homeowners access the equity they have built up on their homes and defer loan payment until they sell the home, move out, or pass away. The original purpose of reverse mortgages was to allow these homeowners to convert home equity into an income stream or line or credit to use in retirement. Borrowers were largely expected to age in place with their loans, living in their current homes until they passed or needed skilled care. Reverse mortgages require no monthly mortgage payments, but borrowers must still pay property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. The report showed that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers are at risk of foreclosure because they failed to pay those costs. “Reverse mortgages are complex and have the potential to become a much more pervasive product in the coming years as the baby boomer generation enters retirement,” said CFPB director Richard Cordray. “With one in ten reverse mortgages already in default, it is important that consumers understand what they are signing up for and that it is the right product for them.”The report found that many reverse mortgage borrowers do not understand how their loan balance will rise and their home equity will fall over time. In addition, the influx of new choices brought on by innovations and policy changes have made the matter too complex for many homeowners. The bureau further found that the tools currently available to help consumers understand the risks and tradeoffs are not enough. The report called for improved methods for housing counselors to help consumers understand their choices. There are many other problems with reverse mortgages as they currently stand, the report pointed out. Many consumers are getting reverse mortgages before the age of 70 (with the most common age for a new borrower being 62, the first age at which reverse mortgages are available), and some are even getting them before retiring. “These borrowers will have fewer resources to pay for everyday and major expenses later in life and may find themselves without the financial resources to finance a future move-whether due to health or other reasons,” said the report. Another problem is that 70 percent of borrowers are taking out the full amount of proceeds as a single lump sum instead of treating the payment as an income stream. As a result, these borrowers have fewer available financial resources later in life. They may not be able to continue paying taxes and insurance on their homes, leading to potential foreclosure. The report found that borrowers who save or invest their money may earn less on the savings than they spend paying interest on the loan. Finally, the bureau addressed the issue of deceptive or misleading marketing materials about reverse mortgages. The report cited examples of mailers that depict reverse mortgages as a government benefit or entitlement program in the vein of Medicare and use images resembling government seals to entice consumers. It can be difficult for consumers to tell that a reverse mortgage is a financial product, not a government benefit. . . .
Given the extreme hardship that many people are suffering as a result of loosey-goosey lending that skyrocketed from about 2001 forward, it's sad that we're already seeing ads suggesting to borrowers that they should not want to be as well-informed as possible before entering into a very serious transaction, probably the biggest financial deal that most people have ever done.
Remember, anyone offering to lend you money without a solid appraisal of the collateral is not doing so because YOU will be better protected. Lending without an appraisal just means that they are satisfied that THEY are protected (that there's enough value in the home to secure their interest).
Given the outrageous junk charges that lenders cram into loans, the appraisal is the last place to look to save money. Instead of getting a refi (which is just real estate jargon for a new loan) without an appraisal, maybe you should ask them to let you pay for an independent appraisal but cut the cost of it out of the other closing costs they charge, especially the loan application fee.
Never think for a minute that the lender is your friend -- because they are not, as millions and millions of Americans are learning to their sorrow.