College Study Attempts to Link Payday Loans and Violence

Remember, Correlation Does Not Imply Causation

Is this person singing the inner city blues over payday loans? Don't bet that it's that simple. (Photo: flickr.com)

Is this person singing the inner city blues over payday loans? Don't bet that it's that simple. (Photo: flickr.com)

Have you ever heard that statement before – that “correlation does not imply causation?” What it means is that even if one can identify a correlation (strength and direction of a relationship between two random variables), it does not automatically imply that one causes the other. Making such a connection is falling prey to a logical fallacy known in Latin as cum hoc ergo propter hoc, which translates to “with this, therefore because of this.”

People falling prey to a logical fallacy in conversation is one thing, but if a logical fallacy is central to the argument in a published academic paper that is attempting to shape public opinion and even advise lawmakers as to procedure, the work becomes irresponsible and even harmful. Such is the case with a recent intercollegiate study by Charis Kubrin and Gregory Squires of George Washington University and Steven Graves of Cal State Northridge entitled “Does Fringe Banking Exacerbate Neighborhood Crime Rates? Social Disorganization and the Ecology of Payday Lending.” Through the use of a logical fallacy, the authors attempt to link the rise of payday loan companies in middle- to low-income neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington with increased community violence. As if there could be no other contributing factors (which is something the authors even concede to more than once during their study, completely invalidating their previous hypothesis).

First, the Pro and Con Payday Loan Arguments

As we’ve heard many times before, those who are against payday loans claim that the businesses exploit the underprivileged and the uneducated. Supposedly, they cause poverty and an endless spiral of debt. On the other hand, supporters indicate that payday loans address a particular need for those who experience short term financial difficulty and are credit constrained and have little or no liquid assets to help deal with the problem. For every study that claims that payday loans cause bankruptcy, there are studies that indicate to the contrary regarding payday loans. Furthermore, numerous studies regarding the profitability of payday loans indicate that the rate charged is justified by the risk involved and that payday lending outlets do not reap excessive profits.

Causing Cities to Tear Themselves Apart?

The study authors take the angle of payday lending being an agitating agent that brings out the worst in the communities where brick-and-mortar stores are present. They see greater instances of crime in areas of Seattle where payday loan store penetration is most concentrated as a previously unstudied “price” that the communities pay for allowing the presence of payday lenders. The authors state that because payday loan stores operate with late and weekend hours – when hoodlums supposedly are out in force? –there is a greater potential for violence. Whether it is the stores themselves or their customers being subject to robbery, the authors would have us believe that providing consumers with payday loans when said consumers’ access to traditional forms of credit is restricted and short term financial need is great is somehow the fault for the violence. By that same logic, wouldn’t ATM machines, banks, liquor stores, gun stores or any other place where money is kept be a potential instigator of violence? It’s ridiculous. Capitalism should either be allowed to work as it can or American society should be dramatically restructured along the dreaded socialist lines that so many Americans claim to fear. Having payday lending outlets in your neighborhood is no more the cause than any other business where money is exchanged.

Why Seattle? Why Payday Loans?

The authors hold up Seattle as being representative of a typical large U.S. city, which sounds reasonable, but they admit that it may not create an accurate picture of the supposed payday loans/violence link for American as a whole. The Seattle communities with the greatest instances of violence in the authors’ study tended to be those where poverty was greatest. So are they saying that because payday loan outlets may be present in or near such communities that the payday loan outlets were the cause of the poverty – or the violence that stems from human frustration and need? That’s a very simplistic view that does not exist upon a well-reasoned, logical framework.

But Texas Payday Loan Customers Only Make $18K Per Year!

I’m not aware of the methodology of the Fox study that the authors cite for Texas payday loan customers, but the results seem highly unlikely (or need much greater clarification). Personal Money Store has found that the average online payday loan applicant makes $31,690 per year. For those approved for payday loans, that rises to $36,000. For those denied, it only falls to $30,672. It is indeed suspicious that there could be such a disparity between those results and those in Texas, but such questions could be indicative of the kind of care in research that the authors used in studying Seattle communities.

Repeat Customers: Beaten Down Victims?

Referring to other studies, the authors make the claim that as much as 60 percent of payday loan customers frequently and quickly borrow again. Personal Money Store customers don’t follow that model at all. Since only 4.64 percent of visitors to the site return and 7.36 percent of applicants are return visitors, it certainly doesn’t support the idea held by the authors that payday lending organizations create financial stress by hooking customers into an endless cycle of debt. It is implied that the stress such a situation could theoretically cause is in turn the flash point that spurs people in the Seattle communities to violence and violent crime. Illicit drug use and abuse, domestic violence, robbery and related crimes have what nearly any sociologist or psychologist would tell you are a complex chain of causes. The presence of payday loan stores in a community – once more – is too simplistic an answer.

Explain it Away, Social Disorganization Theory

The authors use the Social Disorganization Theory to attempt to explain their preconceived connection between the presence of payday lending and community violence. “According to the theory,” they write, “certain neighborhood characteristics can lead to social disorganization, defined as the inability of a community to realize the common values of its residents and maintain effective social controls.” Such social disorganization is the root of crime, according to the authors.

What role do payday loan stores play in the characteristics of a community? Do they structure the daily routines of residents, as the theory would require? The bulk of payday loan customer survey respondents say they use the product to help with an emergency expense, and that this hardly represents a daily occurrence. But more importantly, you cannot assume that one institution is responsible for a social problem. Bars, low-income housing and liquor stores tend to appear in distressed neighborhoods as well, but their financial import to the economic health of said communities is very real. The arguments that liquor stores and bars promote alcoholism or that gun stores promote violent crime will always be on someone’s mind, but that doesn’t make the arguments valid. The connection between payday loan stores and violence/violent crime is even more tenuous.

Build More Community Centers and Libraries

The authors (as well as many others) find that such institutions contribute positively to a community’s identity. Perhaps a lack of sufficient community resources along these lines would be a greater indicator of social disorganization? It’s no stretch to say that the community that is fragmented and the community that doesn’t spend time together would be more prone to communication breakdowns that can lead toward violent confrontation. Stifling market competition by singling out payday loan stores – not to mention robbing disadvantaged consumers of a choice that can genuinely help in the short term – is hardly a way to organize a community in a healthy manner.

While you’re at it, why not install greater security measures in areas where consumers are walking away with large sums of cash? This could be considered a failing of payday loan companies in at-risk communities. With proper security measures, perhaps robbery numbers would go down. If people know there’s a greater chance that they will be caught, they’re much less likely to commit a crime.

Payday Loans and the Drug Trade

Having cash on hand tends to be a prerequisite if an individual wishes to purchase any form of harmful street contraband. However, such behavior should never be encouraged. Payday loan stores certainly do not do so simply by nature of them providing cash to their customers. Banks do the same thing – even ones in less than reputable neighborhoods – but they are not being accused by the authors of this problematic study. Where’s the balance there?

Where the Need is Greatest

“The safest neighborhoods in Seattle have no payday lenders in them,” write the authors. There are many reasons this could be the case. Perhaps the larger, more established traditional banking industry in Seattle has effectively swayed local politicians into pushing their payday loan competition out of high-rent neighborhoods. It certainly wouldn’t be unheard of in big-city politics. What consumers in lower-income neighborhoods tend to face are situations where their restricted access to credit makes qualifying for traditional bank loans next to impossible. Hence, having payday loans they can qualify for in their own neighborhoods constitutes a great service.

Some critics would argue that big banks and credit unions are beginning to offer their own alternative to the payday loan, making those outlets obsolete. However, that’s just in theory. In execution, banks who participate in such programs admit that they do so at a loss. Their real goal – stated by none other than the FDIC – is to transition consumers into other products like overdraft protection and traditional loans. Is it any coincidence that these products can be much more expensive for consumers?

Property Values Go Down Because of Payday Loans?

Of course the authors claim that payday loans are the culprit in those at-risk communities. But remember, correlation does not imply causation. To assume that payday loans are the reason why is to be unintentionally simplistic at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. There are many factors that can contribute to a drop in property values. Many of them are beyond one’s immediate control.

The Effects of Over-Regulation

The study authors challenge lawmakers to enact policies to help control the “blight” of payday loan store presence in American communities. Capping the annual interest rate at 36 percent is one idea, which the federal government has already instituted on loans to active military. However, considering the costs of operating payday loan stores, being allowed to charge less than $2 per $100 loaned for the standard two-week payday loan duration is not enough to keep such businesses open. The result of removing the distressed consumer’s ability to choose payday loan credit is to drive them toward more expensive or even dangerous alternative. I’d like to see the authors connect those alternatives, from loan sharks to other illegal activities, to the violence they claim surrounds the payday lending industry.

Widen the Net for More Meaningful Results, Please

“An obvious extension of this research would be case studies of additional cities,” write the authors. “We suspect our findings are not unique to Seattle. But there may be variations associated with the size, demography, regional location, industrial structure, and other city characteristics that affect the linkage between payday lending and crime.” No, I’d say those factors could be some of the real causes of the violence you’re studying – rather than additional links between payday lending and crime. The authors suggest that further study in the matter is needed to fully understand the supposed connection. I’d agree that further study is needed, but that study should be based on sound reasoning and logic, rather than a logical fallacy. Politicians are easily swayed by things that resemble facts but are in reality statistical noise. On the count that their work could contribute to such institutional delinquency and laziness, Kubrin, Squires and Graves’ theory regarding payday loan stores and violence is irresponsible.

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