Recently I had an interesting experience being poor. It didn’t last too long but it was quite distressing and I learned how difficult this is. The story is as follows. I was out of the country for a month and during that time my car insurance expired. When I got back I called my insurance agent and I asked them to renew my policy. “No, no, no, ” they said, “If your insurance has elapsed you can’t do it over the phone and you have to come to our office in person.” Well at that time I was living in Princeton and my insurance agency was 300 miles away in Boston. So I took the train up, got to the insurance office on time and I was ready to hand them a check and renew my insurance.
Well, here again, I was wrong. It turns out I could not do it by check. The insurance company would not take a check from me because, after all, I have shown I am financially irresponsible. “Will a credit card do?” I said. “Of course not. Only cash.” The limit I can take out with my ATM card is $800 a day and the insurance was almost $3,000 (needless to say they also increased my premium). So I could not solve it this way. “Luckily” the insurance agent had a solution at hand that was designed for this very particular problem. There is another company they told me that would finance my insurance fee. Interestingly enough, the cost of this financing included 20% interest rate on the loan itself plus a $100 fee just to enroll in this program.
I had no choice but to take this particular loan. So I paid the $100 fee, I paid the 20% in interest, and I got my insurance. I took the train back to Princeton. A few days later, of course, I canceled this terrible loan and paid it off. But here is what I learned from this distressing lesson, the moment you make one financial mistake the chances that you will be hit with all kinds of fines, all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of financial obstacles, are much, much higher.
If I was on the verge of financial difficulty there is no question that this particular incident would have pushed me over the edge, making my financial life much more difficult and maybe even impossible. I think that this is, in fact, what we do to people with financial constraints all the time. We impose substantial penalties on the people who violate financial responsibilities, not taking into account their viability and therefore make their lives much, much worse.
How can we get over this issue? I think we have to reconsider the punitive systems all the financial institutions use (insurance, banks, credit cards, etc.), and think more carefully about how we want to share responsibility and payment across people. After all when someone goes bankrupt, they of course suffer, but so does the whole system around them. From this perspective, it is easy to see how the punitive systems we are using are not only bad for the individuals but they can be very damaging for the whole society.