The IRS Enables the Return of Refund Anticipation Loans

New Orleans   Refund anticipation loans or RALs, as they were known, were one of the most predatory products on the market in their heyday targeted solely to low-and-moderate income workers who were most desperate for their tax returns. They were on the other side of the digital divide so less likely to file with the IRS electronically. The money was theirs, and tax preparers, especially the big boys of the market, H&R Block, Jackson & Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Services all exploited this desperation.

This was a 21st century national campaign for ACORN, and we forced the first negotiations with H&R Block after 330 actions in a 6 week time period during the height of the tax season, and eventually ended up with agreements with all three of the companies to wind down RALs. Disclosures of the interest rates were part all of the agreements, but it didn’t really matter since even if it said the interest rate on the loan to get their money one week earlier than the IRS would deliver it would cost them 349%, displayed in a poster or on the computer screen, if you have to have the money to pay rent or buy groceries or fix the car and you have to have it right now, disclosures, no matter how predatory don’t matter. Eventually we got HSBC to withdraw as the primary lender to the companies for RALs for what they termed, “reputational reasons” because the loans were so exploitative. Finally, the IRS and eventually other government agencies jumped in and also condemned RALs, and they finally faded from the market.

Now, thanks to the IRS, they are back, and there is even less doubt about the potential victims now. In 2017, the IRS decided to deliberately delay refunds until February for any taxpayer that claimed the earned-income tax credit or the child tax credit. These credits are only available to lower income workers. Presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have argued that EITC is the best and largest “anti-poverty program in the United States.”

On their website the IRS claimed they were concerned about an “error rate” of between 20 and 27% for filers in order to justify these delays. Something is fishy here. This is the IRS. The error rate should be an exact number based on information they have at hand on how many corrected filings they required, so giving a fudged number raises questions in my mind. Furthermore, their advice is to preparers who enable incorrect filings, which the IRS concedes are largely based on the complexity and confusion involved in the EITC program. Why was the pain not pushed to the preparers, rather than the families filing who were delayed unreasonably in receiving their returns? Oh, and meanwhile the number of audits of higher income filers is in the dumps now!

The preparers saw an opportunity and seized it by offering RALs again. Admittedly, these were no-interest loans this time offered against the amount of the return, and they had loan limits depending on the company’s policies. The big boys report over 1.5 million RALs are reported already this tax season with a month to go. Block did 840,000, Liberty175,000, and Jackson Hewitt 485,000. For the preparers, this is just the cost of customer acquisition, since it is cheese in the trap to catch low-income workers who would be forced to fork over the preparation cost to get their refunds.

No matter how much sugar you put in the coffee, this is once again the IRS partnering with private preparers to expand their businesses. The only real question is how long it will be before RALs are back in full and terrible force again?

The only good news in this tawdry story is that overall filings are down so far this year, so some people at least have decided to wait all of the vultures out.

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The Obstacles to Closing the Digital Divide are Ideological and Naive

Students from a nearby elementary school start to filter into the 81st Avenue Branch Library after school lets out in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, May 5, 2016. The Oakland Public Library has eliminated fines on all children's materials and will soon urge city officials to ban fines for all patrons.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

New Orleans   You may be hearing this on the radio, but the chances are also good that you are reading – and maybe even hearing — this on your computer because you have broadband internet access. Yet, as most of us realize, at least 10% of the American people or more than 35 million folks, do not have broadband access, and you need to add another almost 8 million lower-income people who only have access through mobile phones, which is something, but still leaves a Grand Canyon gap to be closed when it comes to bridging the divide, and it’s ridiculous to claim otherwise. In 45 states, 20% of the public assistance programs for low income families require fixed broadband access in order to successfully apply.

Faithful readers and listeners know that this is a huge issue for me and for ACORN everywhere, but I’m beating on this drum again because of an interview in the New York Times with perhaps the best of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) members, Mignon Clyburn. Clyburn knows how to get things done and has the connections to make things happen in broad terms in Washington, since she is also the daughter of the 3rd ranking Congressman James Clyburn from South Carolina where she was also a former member of the Public Service Commission there. Clyburn’s remarks there were both the best and worst of what we might hope for if we want to create “internet for all.”

At one level, Commissioner Clyburn is a staunch advocate of bringing full broadband to lower income families, and has been aggressive in trying to make it happen, but where she reaches her limits are ideological in that she can’t break out of a neoliberalist commitment to hopes and prayers that benevolent corporations will somehow miraculously solve the problem. Or, perhaps worse, she washes her hands of a government role, arguing that “the community will demand the service.”

Despite her advocacy in general she is still counting on jawboning companies involved in mergers by applying a little stick if they want their big carrot. Most recently in Charter’s merger with Times Warner cable the FCC required the company to create a reduced price service for lower income families and to extend its coverage to another two million homes. These $10 per month programs might be something we could believe in, except that one company after another starting with Comcast where their merger with Universal required such a program, and followed by other companies supposedly “volunteering” to implement such programs, have failed to deliver or meet their goals and the FCC does virtually nothing to enforce its orders or monitor the volunteer efforts, making them pretty much little more than worthless press releases and icing with no cake underneath.

On Google Fiber and its community expansions where they require a certain portion of a community to enroll – and pay – in order to get high speed service, Commission Clyburn leaves it to the community to demand it, even while understanding that the community isn’t demanding it, because they can’t afford it. She’s talking a walk through a side door here. Perhaps she’s hoping that the community will demand that the city or someone else subsidize it, because the FCC record with telecoms they regulate delivering on these demands is abysmal.

When asked why she has such “trust in carriers to do the right thing,” she naively replies that, “I don’t think there is any business that wants to be perceived as not being a good partner with society.” Wow! The list starts with Comcast but almost all of the telecoms would be poster models for not giving a flying hoot about being a “good partner with society” or even their paying customers, much less lower income families.

When asked why it took a call from her to get a high school in Mississippi better broadband service, which as the reporter points out, “shows people don’t have the power to get better broadband on their own,” her reply is stone cold depressing. She says, “Is it a perfect system? Heck no…but it will get done…and that is the beauty of having local, state, and federal regulators. Yes, it may take some years to get broadband rolled out to all cities, but it’s going to get done.”

For Commissioner Clyburn, perhaps the best the FCC has to offer, somehow it is still all good if relief and justice is in the great “by and by.” Meanwhile the damage to millions of lower income families is incalculable. How does she sleep with that under her pillow?

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Magical Realism at the Border of Techies and the Poor

App for Louisiana food stamps

New Orleans    Don’t get me wrong, I am 1000% in favor of techies of all stripes and sizes trying to figure out a way to impact on the lives and fortunes of low and moderate income families. Nonetheless, when I read an article about JPMorgan Chase putting up $30 million through its foundation to create a Financial Solutions Lab to supposedly “build affordable financial services” within their financial industry, all my antennae immediately go up because for the life of me that sounds like a way for Chase to divert money into a tax exempt arm to do research and development for its core business, rather than anything to do with philanthropy. How jaded have I become?!?

The New York Times published a puff piece about the effort in a special section on something they called “fintech,” which I would recommend against ordering at a restaurant no matter how much you like seafood. They highlighted a company called Propel that seemed amazingly well intentioned and dedicated. They had thought of developing an application for a smartphone that would help lower income families apply for food stamps. They were sent with the other Chase lab rats to walk the “mean streets” of San Francisco to get a better sense of the needs of the poor. Did I really say San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the United States? Maybe they were looking to see how many lower income families had managed to stay in San Francisco…but I don’t want to get off my subject here. Anyway, Chase gave Propel a quarter of a million bucks, and they ended up switching over to develop an app to allow a low income family to be able to determine the balance they have left on their food stamp card.

I guess that’s a good thing, though in my experience most food stamp recipients can tell almost anyone within a penny how much they have on their card at any time day or night during any month you might want to ask. Or they walk to the corner store and find out, but, let’s stay positive here.

You will need a smartphone though for this app to help you. We have this nagging problem of the widening gap in internet access but according to various Pew Research surveys 74% of families making less than $30000 per year now have sometime access to the internet. 13% of families with internet access making less than $30000 can only do so with a smartphone, so for the subset of those who are also eligible for food stamps of that 13%, the app might have some value.

Of course smartphones cost money, and if a family making under $30000 can afford a smartphone, that doesn’t mean they can afford unlimited access to data of course. 48% in fact report on Pew surveys that they pretty regularly get cutoff from their smartphones because they don’t have the money to pay the bill. 30% also report that they regularly exhaust the minutes on their data plan so essentially have to cut themselves off from using their phones to access the internet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a solution looking for a problem. I’m just saying that this “fintech” pretense of supposedly helping low income families who are unbanked and victimized by their lack of affordable access to the financial system is way ahead of its time until there is equal access to the internet, the cost of devices are lowered, and the FCC forces the predatory telecoms to produce affordable plans for lower income families. In fact if Chase had been willing to really be charitable and invest $30 million in a campaign to make that happen PDQ in the US, then we would be talking about a real step forward where we could let a thousand apps bloom. Until then other than providing R&D for big banks, it seems the cart has once again jumped ahead of the horse.

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Only One Hand Clapping for FCC Expanded Lifeline Rule for Internet

indexNew Orleans   FCC Chairmen Tom Wheeler claimed the decision to expand Lifeline programs from telephones to the internet was a major breakthrough in closing the digital divide. This was a 3-2 decision on party lines. The majority at the FCC claim that this broadening application of the subsidy will “help millions of low-income households connect to the internet.”

The New York Times noted that “only about 40% of families making less than $25,000 a year can afford broadband while 95% making over $150,000 have high-speed internet at home.” The program will provide a monthly subsidy of $9.25 to access broadband. The eligibility for the program will begin with those eligible for either food stamps through the SNAP program or veterans benefits.

This must be a good thing, right? Why are we not applauding or at best have only one hand clapping this new FCC initiative?

Let’s look at just some of the reasons.

First, this program will NOT close the digital divide, and the subsidy is basically a subsidy for internet providers like Comcast, Times-Warner, Charter, Cox, and others, more than it is a subsidy for lower income families.

Why do I say this?

Well, let’s please remember that analysts argued several years ago when the FCC required Comcast to establish a $10 per month program for lower income families as a condition of approving their acquisition of Universal, that Comcast would still make money on internet even at $10. This program will be almost a ten dollar subsidy for a family to access broadband, which in plain English means of course that the internet provider will be charging more, and potentially way more, for the service while the $9.25 knocks a bit off the bill. In the run-up to the FCC’s action some argued that average basic internet bills were running $30 to $40 per month. Knock a ten-spot off of that bill, and we’re still talking about families pushed up against the wall having to come up with another twenty or thirty bucks. And, I’m not even talking about the cost of installation or whether or not the family has a computer. This is just not going to happen.

And, will this be “high-speed” just like those 95 percenters have who are making $150,000? I doubt it. In Canada for several years after we got Rogers to agree to a $10 per month plan in public housing in Toronto, we were constantly arguing with them about issues of speed. One or two megabytes per second is not enough to stream or download or do most web-based homework. The FCC action was silent on this issue.

One-hand clapping might say this is better than nothing. Maybe. But, the fact that internet providers are not complaining should be a clue, friends and neighbors. They are glad to get their hands on some of the billions that had been solely subsidizing phone service for some lower income families. The Comcasts don’t sell phones and phone service, so this is all good news for them.

For lower income families this new program will mainly be another myth where they are playing Tantalus and trying to reach the grapes, always out of reach.

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The Painful Tragedy of the Digital Divide

computers_0Little Rock    For more almost 25 years, Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented school support workers mostly in Texas and Louisiana from Head Start to high school from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers and janitors. Most of our work is concentrated in the cities now, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock, because the members’ dues can afford the infrastructure there, but every month we still get regular dues checks from our members at the outposts of local.

About this time of year when winter lingers and spring is pushing forward in this part of the country, I used to join Orell Fitzsimmons, 100’s Texas State Director, for what we called our “fence mending” tour. I would meet him in Houston and then we would drive to Corpus Christi, meet with Willie Fleming there, and then stay in some cheap motel along South Padre Island before we went through our school districts along the Rio Grande Valley before heading back north toward San Antonio and back around to Houston. Sometimes we would stop and take a picture of Texas state highway 100 on the way to Donna to visit our members in the school district there before doubling back to McAllen, Pharr, McAllen, and Brownsville. Everything in south Texas is a long ride.

The FCC is voting soon on a Band-Aid, but essential program to expand “lifeline” funds collected from the big telecoms to offer increased access to broadband internet to lower income families. If we were really serious about attacking inequality we would do a whole lot more, including forcing these public utilities to make all internet affordable to all families in their homes as a basic necessity, but at least we’re doing a little something-something.

Forty percent of the families in South Texas where we used to fence mend do not have access at home to the internet. Looking at a picture in the New York Times of children standing outside a schoolhouse in McAllen, one of our old Texas school districts, so that they could download homework assignments from a school’s wireless hotspot, is just about enough to bring tears to my eyes from the rage boiling my brain. Reading about a young girl in the Donna Independent School District, that we know like the back of our hands, who rides a bus 3-hours a day so that she can use the Wi-Fi on the bus to keep her grades up is tragic. Reading about another 17-year old girl who finishes her after-school job in Pharr and then has to go to a friend’s house to use the internet in order to get assignments in before the midnight deadline that are required to be submitted on-line just about sends me to the street to scream.

Why are we not doing better for these children? Why are these school districts not paying a janitor a couple of extra dollars to keep the cafeteria open for these young scholars to do their homework until 9PM or even later? Why are teachers so brutally insensitive to the children they see eye-to-eye across their desks? What kind of casual cruelty is becoming part of the DNA of our society? And, that’s downstream, when so much of the problem is upstream in corporate suites and politicians offices.

The Rio Grande Valley is not an exception either. More than 30% lack internet access in New Orleans, Detroit, and other broke-ass cities, that are also not surprisingly majority-minority cities. 25% of library users now in cities according to surveys find their patrons coming to use the computers and internet, yet how many are open the hours that students need?

Half-steps are probably better than standing still, but we need a full-on march to deal with the digital divide and the inequality it advances so clearly for so many struggling so hard.

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Internet for All

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.26.18 AMNew Orleans    If we want to make a difference in income inequality, there are some easy and accessible first steps that we can take and one of them is to lower the digital divide.

ACORN Canada released a report based on a survey of 400 of our nearly 80,000 members across the country, and it was impossible to miss the point.

Looking at the facts in the report, the survey found that:

· 58 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less with home Internet access.
· 98 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $120,000 or more with home Internet access.
· 83.5 Percentage of ACORN survey respondents who find high-speed Internet “extremely expensive.”
· 59 Percentage of survey respondents who pay for Internet by forgoing other household necessities.
· 71 Percentage who used food money to pay for Internet services.
· 64 Percentage who used recreation money to pay for Internet services.
· 13 Percentage who used rent money to pay for Internet services.

ACORN had already prodded Rogers, one of the telecom monopolies in Canada to offer a $10 per month program but it was limited to public housing, largely in Toronto. Several other companies have come on board, but as the facts indicate, not enough has been done to reconcile the fact that access to the internet has now become a basic utility.

The ACORN report came out while the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC continues its review of Canada’s basic telecommunications services first begun in the spring of 2015.

The ACORN demands are straightforward:

Specifically, members are asking for:

$10/month product for high speed (15 megabits/second or equivalent to high speed in area);

Families and individuals below the Low Income Measure as eligible to qualify;

Subsidized computers for qualifying families and individuals.

The LIM or low income measure in 2013 was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes. These are demands that resonant across North America.

One ACORN member told the story to the Toronto Star that might be repeated a million times,

Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.

“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”

Facebook is flying drones over Africa. Google and Alphabet are reporting record profits. Cable and telecoms are making record profits. Canada, the USA, or wherever, this is a problem that can be solved, and if the divide is not closed, then the gaps show up everywhere and inequality spreads like a disease.

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