Credit has become a significant institution within the American social safety net. Accordingly, “access to credit” talk pervades the current discourse of financial rights and equality for low-income communities. Indeed, in a rare point of convergence, both progressive and conservative accounts of optimal credit regulation for the working poor rest on the shared conviction that credit is an important tool of “social provision,” the range of state policies implemented to improve general welfare.
The notion that credit is a valid form of social provision for low-income Americans, however, is deeply flawed. The difficulty with credit as a form of social provision for low- income Americans is that there is an essential mismatch between the problem and the solution. At its best, credit is a mechanism of intertemporal and intrapersonal redistribution. However, low-income Americans often struggle with persistent financial instability, and decades of data show that they can reasonably expect to be in worse economic shape as time progresses. As an essential matter, then, the problem of entrenched and enduring poverty that leaves people consistently unable to afford basic necessities cannot be addressed by a device that requires future prosperity and economic growth.
Moreover, the resulting debt burden transforms credit as social provision from a form of mere intertemporal redistribution into a form of regressive redistribution, in which wealth flows out of already economically vulnerable communities. This reality has broader consequences for the middle class given its own government-sanctioned, heavy reliance on credit in the broader, persistently stagnant economic environment. Thus, our increasingly unfounded dependence on a policy of access to credit as social provision must be set aside in order to begin the difficult task of surfacing and centralizing the more pressing extent of deepening economic, and thus social, inequality.
* Assistant Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law. For invaluable conversation and comments on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Kathryn Abrams, Michelle Wilde Anderson, Abhay Aneja, Carlos Avenancio-León, Kenneth Ayotte, Ralph Richard Banks, Robert Bartlett, Guy-Uriel Charles, Marcus Cole, Prasad Krishnamurthy, Robert Lawless, Daryl Levinson, Adam Levitin, Joy Milligan, Saira Mohamed, Edward Morrison, Julian Davis Mortenson, Tejas Narechania, Frank Partnoy, Claudia Polsky, John Pottow, Bertrall Ross, Norman Spaulding, Erik Stallman, Rachel Stern, Karen Tani, George Triantis, and Justin Weinstein-Tull; and to the participants in the Culp Colloquium at Stanford Law School, the UCLA Law Faculty Colloquium, the Young Scholars Bankruptcy Workshop, the Berkeley Law Faculty Workshop, and the Michigan Law School Junior Scholars Conference. I thank Robyn Pariser and the Berkeley Law reference librarians for excellent research assistance, and the editors of the Stanford Law Review for their hard work and dedication to marshaling this project to publication. Lastly, I thank Esteban Longoria for unconditional support and encouragement in all things. All errors are my own.