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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010, 7:59 am

Weekly Audit: After Healthcare, The Economy

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Now that health care reform has finally been enacted, a host of critical economic issues are taking center stage, including financial reform, unemployment and deeply rooted economic inequality. But it's important to note that with its health care vote, the U.S. House of Representatives actually approved a very important, and often overlooked financial reform: Student lending.

Pedro de la Torre III of Campus Progress explains the current student loan nightmare in an interview with The American Prospect's Rebecca Delaney. For years, the U.S. government has paid massive subsidies to some of the worst-run companies in the country.

Thanks a lot, Sallie Mae

As de la Torre notes, instead of directly making loans to students, the government spent years funneling money to firms like Sallie Mae to actually make the loans. When things went sour, taxpayers covered the lender's losses from student loans that ultimately went bad.

Taxpayers were also footing the bill for the loans and taking on the risk, while private companies and their executives enjoyed the benefits. The executives made quite a haul. In 2008 alone, Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord took home an astonishing $46 million. Even among CEOs, that's a princely sum—more than double what Halliburton CEO David Lesar made the same year. All of that money could have financed a lot of college educations.

Fortunately, the student loan landscape is almost certain to change as a result of the health care vote. The House bill included a provision to end student loan subsidies and boost funding for direct grants from the government to students.

Since the student loan reform and health care were both eligible for reconciliation in the Senate (meaning only 51 votes are needed for passage instead of the 60 to clear a filibuster), House Democrats decided to move on both at the same time. It's a significant reform, and one that will soon become law with President Barack Obama's signature.

What would an overhaul of the consumer finance industry entail?

The student loan system is just one aspect of the consumer finance industry that needs a major overhaul. On mortgages, credit cards, overdrafts, and payday loans, the banking status quo is one of outright predation. As Heather McGhee of Demos explains to The Nation's Christopher Hayes, there's a reason why federal agencies do a lousy job regulating consumer banking abuses.

Right now there is no agency responsible for consumer protection alone. Every regulator also focuses on making sure banks don't fail, which generally means that regulators support anything that increases short-term profits. Egregiously predatory practices generally lead to big short-term gains in banking.

A new consumer financial protection bureau

Last week, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced a bill that would create a new bureau of consumer financial protection, with no constraints from bank profitability. It's a step in the right direction, but as McGhee notes, there are plenty of problems with Dodd's proposal. Most problematically, the bill gives existing agencies a veto power over any new consumer protection rules. That's a terrible loophole. Existing regulators have actively opposed consumer protections in the past, and there is every reason to expect that practice to continue.

Rapid tax refunds scam the poor

It's late March, which means tax season is getting into full swing. All over the country, mascots from Liberty Tax are spilling into the streets wearing goofy costumes, trying to win your business. But millions of Americans don't realize that Liberty, along with H&R Block, Jackson-Hewitt and hundreds of smaller businesses are engaged in a monstrous scam disguised as a complicated accounting service.

As Alexander Zaitchik emphasizes for AlterNet, these tax preparers have used deceptive advertising and slick salesmanship to con people into taking out "refund anticipation loans," also known as "rapid refunds" and a handful of other pleasant euphemisms. It's a simple gimmick: H&R Block does your taxes, and then presents you with your tax refund, right away, no waiting. But the check you receive is not actually your tax refund—it's your tax refund minus a truckload of fees that you didn't realize were being deducted. This is the tax-time equivalent of payday lending.

When the government sends in your actual, larger tax refund one-to-two weeks later, you won't see it—it goes straight to H&R Block's bank partner. Those banks are making big money taking from your tax returns. Here's Zaitchik:

"In 2008, more than eight million Americans spent nearly a billion dollars paying interest and fees on RALs—often based on misleading or incomplete information—swelling the profits of tax preparers and their partner banks."

The one break low-income people get under the U.S. tax code is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the nation's largest anti-poverty program. Only about 16% of taxpayers qualify for the EITC, but as Zaitchik notes, nearly two-thirds of the people who take out refund anticipation loans receive the credit. Tax preparers are making a concerted effort to prey on the poor, making the EITC program more expensive and less efficient for all taxpayers—not just those who go to H&R Block or Liberty Tax.

More action needed on jobs

Beyond finance, the U.S. economy has a serious jobs problem. Last week, Congress approved an $18 billion jobs package that is simply far too small to make a serious dent in the nearly double-digit unemployment rate. As Art Levine explains for Working In These Times, the package will create 250,000 jobs at best. That number shouldn't be acceptable to anyone watching the U.S. economy, which has shed about 7 million jobs since the recession began.

There are much stronger options available than the $18 million bill the Senate approved. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has introduced a bill in the House that would quickly save or create one million jobs, and the House has already passed a separate $154 billion jobs package that would prevent 900,000 lay-offs. If the Senate moved on either one, the result would be a major economic boost.

The link between poor economies and poor health

All of these problems—unemployment, student loan scamming, refund anticipation loan sharking and other forms of financial predation—reinforce economic inequality in the United States, which is at levels unseen since before the Great Depression. That inequality is ultimately actively damaging to public health, as epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson explains in an interview with Brooke Jarvis for Yes! Magazine. Rampant economic inequality in the United States is literally making us sick.

"We looked at life expectancy, mental illness, teen birthrates, violence, the percent of populations in prison, and drug use," Wilkinson says. "They were all not just a little bit worse, but much worse, in more unequal countries."

With health care finally finished, Congress and the administration have an opportunity to make serious headway on the economy. They've got plenty of work to do.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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