Cathy Reisenwitz

According to a recent study, 41% of American households reported using what the agency calls “alternative financial services,” including online lenders in 2011. It’s interesting that while 75% of American can access the default banking system, 41% are choosing to pay higher interest rates to use the alternatives. And these aren’t the people you might have in mind when you think about brick-and-mortar payday lending. Users of online lenders tend to be middle-class and well-educated.

So what are New Yorkers doing now that they no longer have access to online lending? They’re taking advantage of payday loans, going to their friends and family, and, most troublingly, relying on black-market alternatives. That’s what happened when Virginia cracked down on alternative financial services. Kicking alternative lenders out of the game doesn’t force traditional banks to work with people they previously excluded. And it doesn’t cause people to change their spending patterns so they no longer need short-term loans. It only further limits their white-market options for getting quick cash.

At least it will until Lawsky loses the lawsuit. Native American Tribes are not subject to state regulations, so Lawsky had zero authority to order them, along with 31 online lenders, to stop lending in New York, or to send a letter to 117 banks asking them to cut off their access to electronic payments systems.

“States and tribes do not have a relationship with each other,” explains Dr. Katherine Spilde. She is a Cultural Anthropologist and professor who has spent the past 20 years working with tribes on economic development. “States don’t understand the full weight of tribal sovereignty.”

Only the U.S. Congress can regulate tribes, according to Executive Director of the Native American Financial Services Association, Barry Brandon. “We wrote a letter to Lawsky with our concern about his actions, requesting a meeting,” Brandon said during a telephone press conference. “We received no response from him.”

States can, however, force non-tribe online lenders to comply with regulations capping interest rates. This is exactly what would be necessary to realize Warren’s Post Office prediction. “If the Postal Service offered basic banking services... then it could provide affordable financial services for underserved families, and, at the same time, shore up its own financial footing,” Warren claims. But how?

If banks can’t profitably lend to underserved families, how could USPS? The only possible way this plan could work is if regulators actually succeeded in putting all alternative lenders out of business. This would force American families to choose between the loan sharks and the Post Office. This would be a tragedy for the millions of Americans who rely on payday and online lenders. And it would devastate Native American tribes.

If Elizabeth Warren wants to try to use the Post Office to offer another banking option, it’s ill-advised, but acceptable. Why anyone would want to make cashing checks and borrowing money as fast, up-to-date, pain-free and convenient as a trip to the Post Office is baffling. Despite a legally mandated monopoly on non-urgent letter delivery and direct shipping to U.S. Mail boxes, the USPS is broke.

But the truth is far more sinister. Warren is supporting state regulators in order to give the Post Office its next monopoly, this time over alternative banking services. This time, instead of barring private entities from delivering non-urgent letters, she’s using state regulations to make it impossible to lend to high-risk families profitably.

Vigorous enforcement of state-mandated interest-rate caps would put alternative lenders out of business, and effectively nationalize alternative banking. This will force American families to choose between loan sharks and the Post Office. Thankfully, without a change to national law, the plan will fail. However, state regulators could succeed in putting all non-tribe alternative banking providers out of business. Creating another option for payday lending customers is a worthy goal. But using state regulations to give this option a monopoly hurts everyone.


Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is a Young Voices Associate and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator.


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