Archive for August, 2012

Invasion of the Body Attachments – No Wait – They Are Already Here

I do not normally read the electronic version of the weekly ABA Journal, which shows up in my email periodically. But the August 24 addition caught my eye because I am a payday lending news junkie, and the teaser sucked me in with:  Payday Lenders Using Courts to Create Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons in Missouri, Critics Say. Apparently, Missouri payday lenders with judgments are summoning debtors to court for an examination, then requesting a “body attachment” when the debtor fails to appear.  The Journal includes this quote from an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Debtors are sometimes summoned to court repeatedly, increasing chances that they’ll miss a date and be arrested. Critics note that judges often set the debtor’s release bond at the amount of the debt and turn the bond money over to the creditor—essentially turning publicly financed police and court employees into private debt collectors for predatory lenders.”

Ohio law includes at least two options for incarcerating debtors for civil debts.  Revised Code Chapter 2331: EXECUTION AGAINST THE PERSON, on the books essentially unchanged since 1953, directs how to “arrest such debtor and commit him to the jail of the county until he pays the judgment, or is discharged according to law.”  Chapter 2333:  PROCEEDINGS IN AID OF EXECUTION  contains the procedures for judgment debtors’ exams, and allows for body attachments if the judgment debtor fails to appear.  Again, these provisions remain virtually unchanged since their enactment in 1953.

I hesitate to point out the existence of these laws because  those of us who defend debt collection cases know that all varieties of debt collectors in Ohio have become much more aggressive in their collection efforts, recording judgment liens and threatening foreclosure, or executing against families’ cars with value above the exemption amount for a motor vehicle.  While I am sure creditors’ attorneys are well aware of the collection tools available in Ohio, I do not want to shine a spotlight on these particularly reprehensible options.

Of course, technically the Missouri civil debtors, and Ohio debtors, are not arrested for failing to pay their debts – they are arrested for failing to appear when summoned.  The ACLU already exposed this trap for criminal defendants in its 2010 report: “In For a Penny:  The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons”, which chose Ohio as one of five states in which to highlight abuses.

 Occasionally legal aid attorneys find themselves on the opposite side of the fence, attempting to collect a debt from a recalcitrant or elusive judgment debtor instead of defending against a judgment. I understand the frustration of struggling to collect a judgment, but really – body attachments?  A lot has changed since 1953.  Ohio updated RC 2329.66 Exempted interests and rights  in 2008. Isn’t it time that Ohio exempted debtors’ bodies from the options for garnishment and attachment?


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How Not to Talk About Poverty

How We Should Change Our Message and Language to Build a Movement to End Poverty

Written By Melissa Salamon, Guest Blogger, OPLC Summer Intern, and 2L at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

Our society continues to project an aura of negativity around the term poverty, but advocates are working hard to change the framework conceptualizing poverty in an attempt to make it a more approachable subject. To garner more support in the effort to end poverty, there is a consensus that we must change the way the public views it. There are a many tactics both organizations and individuals can engage in to improve the portrayal of poverty and its interpretation by the general public. First, we must examine what does not work, remove it from our approach, and replace it with what does work.

What doesn’t work

A number of methods have been determined to be unsuccessful in talking about poverty.  While some of these methods might sound appealing, they fail to address the causes of poverty or to propose solutions. Experts have found that addressing poverty without a framework or organizing principle which might allow it to be seen as workable or approachable is ineffective. When no framing is presented with the concept people look to their own, often negative, ideas about poverty which prevents them from seeing the true issues or supporting changes that could improve the situation.

When framework is included, it is often focused on the individual case rather than the systemic causes of poverty. This creates a sense of compassion or sympathy for the individual, but can also allow people to see the case as an exception.

Even when poverty is presented in a collective manner the concept of othering or an us/them mentality becomes an issue. The ‘War on Poverty’ terminology perpetuates othering by portraying poverty as something to fight, something that has causes outside of our society. Poverty should not be presented in a manner that invites sympathy or as a crisis that needs to be attacked.

Another method that is often used, but should be avoided, is the overreliance on data. The use of bold statistics is not recommended because it can sometimes make the situation worse. Any language that categorizes people as poor perpetuates the “othering” mentality. Stereotypes and overgeneralizations should be avoided as well as the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor dichotomy. Even making a statement about the “deserving poor” creates/validates the idea that there are “undeserving poor” and should be avoided.

Current speech surrounding poverty fails to appeal to common values in society. When creating discourse about poverty we should try to promote the idea that poverty is not an us/them issue, but a we issue. Poverty affects everyone. Economic hardship does not begin at the poverty line, but affects people from a spectrum of income levels. When talking about poverty there should be no separation of them from us; instead, we should find common uniting factors that appeal to all. Look to core beliefs and use dominant frames to positively address the issue.

So, how should we talk about poverty?

When framing poverty, try to tell a big picture story. Look to the macroeconomic causes of poverty, including unemployment and the economy, rather than the individual case or means-tested benefits issues. When talking about the War on Poverty from the 1960s, look further back to the increased unionization and the public infrastructure projects that helped decrease poverty rather than focusing on welfare.

Define the terms being used so that the concept being portrayed is not clouded by varying definitions. Use respectful, progressive, effective language. Use inclusive terms that foster the “we” concept.

Talk about the circumstances that cause behaviors rather than specific instances. Focus on solutions. Make the concept manageable and help people understand what they can do. Appeal to shared values. By making these small changes in the discourse about poverty, it may be possible to decrease the stigma surrounding it and create a common goal to eliminate poverty.

Other resources to check out:

Writing and Talking About Poverty, Dr. John McKendrick, Institute for Society and Social Justice Research, Briefing Paper 26, The Scottish Government.

Talking about Poverty in a Jobs and Economic Framework, Shawn Fremstad, September 2011, Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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School Discipline Is a Community Issue: Why People Whose Kids Are Grown or Who Don’t Have Kids Should Care About What’s Happening in Our Schools

Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” 
Jane Nelson

Children “should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”      Convention on the Rights of the Child, Preamble

Public schools rely too heavily on exclusion – suspension and expulsion – as their primary discipline practice.  When a child or young person misbehaves or breaks a rule, “discipline” in most schools means removal of the child from school, sometimes for one day, sometimes for a year or more.  In almost every situation in which a child is removed from school, this is an illogical, counterproductive tactic.  In some situations, it is dangerous.

Children who want to avoid schoolwork, a particular teacher, a classmate, or school in general learn quickly what to do to achieve being removed from the setting they seek to avoid.  Children who have been repeatedly removed from school fall further behind the more they are removed from their classrooms.  Children who are behind have more and more trouble catching up the more frequently they are gone.  Children who are behind and not engaged in the classroom do not learn.  Children who are not learning get bored and act up.  And so on.

Children who live in high-poverty, high-crime areas are susceptible to becoming both victims and perpetrators of crime when left outside of adult supervision all day while they are not in school. Many, many parents in low-income families work multiple jobs to try to get by, lack access to child care, and cannot stay home and supervise their children when they are suspended from school.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a history of prior suspensions causes young people to drop out of school.  And that far too many young people who are pushed out of school end up in our juvenile and criminal justice systems.

This affects all of us.  Crime committed by and against young people affects our communities, both on a large and small scale.  The young people who tag my garage and break into my neighbors’ homes in my central city neighborhood have almost certainly been failed by the public school system.  And it doesn’t just affect those of us who live in urban areas, where concentrated poverty and crime, and failing schools, are endemic.  Kids are pushed out of school in suburban and rural schools, too.  Data shows that kids who are repeatedly suspended from suburban and rural schools are at higher risk of dropping out, too.  And people who live in suburban and rural communities pay the price when kids from their own small communities, as well as the urban communities in their state, are not in school.

Because they’ve been failed by their schools, young people who are not in school are more likely to become unemployed adults.  They are more likely to become recipients of public benefits like food stamps and TANF.  Young people who are not in school do not disappear.  They simply lose access to almost every legitimate means of earning a living and supporting themselves and their families.  In short,  schools’ failure to provide students a high quality education and treat them with dignity fails not just them:  it fails every person who lives and works in their community, their state, their nation.

Every person who lives in any community, therefore, has a personal interest in ensuring that every young person in that community is in school.  Removing children from school to discipline them for wrongdoing treats them as disposable, as a nuisance that we have neither the patience nor the fortitude to address.  Instead, all community members must take responsibility for ensuring that their schools teach children appropriate behavior, use discipline wisely, and exclude children from school rarely.

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Understanding Prepaid Debit Cards – Starting Up The Learning Curve

On July 25 the Ohio Poverty Law Center sponsored “Law and Economics of Poverty”, a training for legal aid attorneys in Ohio, at which many of us were introduced to prepaid debit cards as an alternative to conventional banking.  Also referred to as general purpose reloadable prepaid cards (GPR prepaid cards), these cards are relatively new financial products that can offer some attractive features to a number of different consumer groups.  Low income families or individuals using Ohio Direction cards for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Eppicards for Ohio Works First benefits, and ReliaCards for unemployment compensation are already using reloadable prepaid cards, although these cards are not general purpose cards.  As all who work regularly in public benefits know, the US Treasury is phasing out paper check payments and requiring all recipients of federal benefits to get their money electronically.  The Treasury’s website, www.GoDirect.org, has a giant clock counting off the seconds until March 1, 2013.  If recipients have not chosen a form of electronic payment by that date, they will receive their payments via the Direct Express Card – a prepaid debit card.  As our client population moves into the age of electronic benefits and payments systems, we as advocates need to understand the benefits and pitfalls of these money-managing tools.

As is the case with many new financial products, GPR prepaid cards have been on the market for a number of years, but only recently have been the focus of potential regulatory attention. On March 14, 2012, David Rothstein, one of two presenters on prepaid cards at the July 25 training, testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection regarding issues in the prepaid card market. On May 24, 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, seeking input on GPR cards.   The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), joining with the Center for Responsible Lending and the Consumer Federation of America, submitted extensive comments and recommendations to the CFPB.

The use of prepaid cards is not evenly distributed across the population, and the largest numbers of prepaid card users are members of the vulnerable   populations we serve:  lower income, unbanked or those with less access to traditional banking facilities, recent immigrants, consumers in fragile economic situations, and younger, less educated and less experienced consumers.    Rothstein’s testimony and NCLC’s comments focus on two main points:  1) make disclosures clear and meaningful; and 2) prohibit overdraft fees and credit features.

The issue of overdraft fees played out here in Ohio, with US Bank charging unemployment compensation recipients who opted in to overdraft protection a $17 overdraft charge for ATM or store-based transactions that exceeded balances on its ReliaCard Visas.  As of Wednesday, July 18, 2012 US Bank withdrew that option, due to pressure from advocates and because of changes in federal regulations.

Public benefits advocates have kept a close and watchful eye on the costs and features of the benefits prepaid cards.  But the universe of cards used by our client population is much bigger, and we all need to keep a watchful eye on these financial products as they continue to spread out into the marketplace.

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