Ellison speaks on consumer injustice

Jake Grovum

Elected as part of the Democratic Congressional takeover in 2006, Keith Ellison has been making news ever since.

Given the open-forum format of Monday’s “Connecting with Government” event at the Humphrey Institute, Ellison did not address the controversy about his Muslim faith or the book he chose to swear upon into Congress.

Instead, Ellison spoke about leveling the playing field for working families, controlling credit card company practices, and promoting a consumer agenda.

“Today’s poor person was yesterday’s working person,” he said. “It might be predatory lending that got them there.”

A graduate of the University’s Law School, Ellison returned to Minneapolis as part of an ongoing speaker series sponsored by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance that features prominent government leaders.

Ellison described consumers as the “golden goose that lays the golden egg.” Speaking on the need to relieve consumer stress, Ellison said the situation is not limited to small businesses.

“Its neck is on the chopping block and the hand is raised,” he said. “When mom and pop aren’t doing well, it won’t be long before Wall Street isn’t doing well.”

Ellison said that in 1980, the average Chief Executive Officer made 40 times that of a worker, but now makes 400 times more.

“That cannot be justified by their value in the company,” he said. “It’s not wrong to do well, but we all need to do well.”

Ellison pointed to what he called the myth of scarcity citing the story about the loaves and the fish from the Bible.

“There was enough then, and there is enough now,” he said. “It’s not a boundless supply that leads to waste, but scarcity is a myth.”

Ellison said there are 37 million people in the United States living in poverty, and consumer debt is over $2 trillion.

“Everyone knows you’re poor before you hit the poverty line,” he said. “Americans are reaching for new forms of credit to compensate for wages.”

Ellison said universal default, a policy practiced by some credit card companies, can raise interest rates for consumers on one credit card if they make a late payment on another.

“It’s not risk-based pricing,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting money where you can.”

Ellison has proposed legislation to stop the practice of universal default.

Addressing promotions on campus that offer free food to students who register for a credit card, he said they are “ridiculous” and irresponsible.

Ellison said many credit card companies have risk-based interest rates and at the same time target high-risk consumers.

“(The credit card companies) are engaging in self-inflicted risk,” he said.

To put an end to these promotions, Ellison said he’d like to see restrictions on campus and have parents co-sign for any card registered to a student.

After the speech, Miracle Obeta, political science and international relations senior at the University’s Morris campus said he’s also concerned about the issue.

“Recognizing as a student with credit cards in the mail every day, the problems are there and my family and I can relate,” he said.

Cassaundra Adler, former Humphrey Institute Policy Fellow and financial educator for Lutheran Social Service, said many people get in trouble with credit card debt because they lack financial experience.

“You’re 40 and paying for a pizza you had as a sophomore because no one explained the adverse effects of making the minimum payment,” she said.

Adler blamed stagnant wages for the increasing consumer debt.

“Their wages haven’t risen, but everything else has, and people fill that gap with credit,” she said.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance said Ellison’s message reaches a wide audience.

“He’s touching on an issue that hits everyone,” he said. “A kind of populist frustration with credit card companies.”