“Don’t we have poor houses?”

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Gremlin's Bite -- From The Annapolis County Spectator

By Stephen Hawboldt

Anyone who has been exposed to “A Christmas Carol,” knows the infamous quote, “don’t we have poor houses?” It was uttered by Ebenezer Scrooge when he was approached by his peers on Christmas Eve to make a donation to a fund to help the 19th century poor of London.

About a hundred years earlier, a former French queen, her head still attached, was confronted by the starving poor of Paris. When they complained of no bread to eat, her response was like that of Scrooge, “let them eat cake.” While the definition of cake is different today, the statement underscores the disconnect that spawned 30+ years of mayhem in 18th century France

If the calls received during a  recent Maritime Noon program discussing the exorbitant interest being charged by our charter banks on credit cards are any indication, Canada, and the rest of the developed world, may be aimed down the same road in the 21st  century. There may be developing the same dangerous disconnect between those that have and those that do not.

The credit card interest rates start at 20 per cent and go to just below the limits permitted by the Criminal Code of Canada. Above that, our charter banks and their executive could be charged with a criminal offense.

With the Bank of Canada rate hovering around one per cent and consumer loans at five per cent, our charter banks continue to charge upwards of 30 per cent on credit card debt. The definition of what exactly constitutes the outstanding balance make the actual interest charged somewhat higher than what most might expect.

The call-in revolved around New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette who is proposing legislation to cap the interest rates that our charter banks can charge on credit cards. The senator responded to incoming calls about high credit card interest rates from citizens throughout the Maritimes

Several callers supported the notion that credit card interest rates should have legislated ceilings. A surprising number felt that if one chooses to spend unwisely on their credit cards, they should pay the price. Several callers even suggested that there was no role for government.

The underlying assumptions in these comments are astonishing in the 21st century. First, there is the premise that the poor choose to be poor. The causes of poverty have been researched for decades. The causes are usually circumstances beyond the control of the individual.

Of course if someone has preconceived notions that the poor are lazy, irresponsible good-for-nothings, that person will search and find examples to support their ideological determination. That person will not let facts get in the way of their firmly held beliefs.

In the mid ‘60s, David Caplovitz published groundbreaking research that showed the poor pay more. In this century, independent researchers have validated the conclusions. Because lower income people have fewer options, they pay more for everything they buy. They are often victimized because of mobility, intellectual, educational, social, and technological skill limitations.

Today they, and a lot of middle income Canadians, are victimized by excessive credit card interest rates. Seniors, low-income adults and many others are sometimes forced to rely on credit cards to pay basic living expenses for short periods. Because of exorbitant interest rates charged by our charter banks on credit cards, they can quickly and easily find themselves captured in a dangerous, downward spiral of debt built on interest charges.

Surely in the 21st century we have moved beyond the infamous Dickens quote, “don’t we have poor houses?”


Stephen Hawboldt is a journalist working and living in Annapolis County. Comments are always welcome and can be addressed to stephen.hawboldt@eastlink.ca

Organizations: Maritime Noon, Bank of Canada

Geographic location: Annapolis County, Canada, London Paris France New Brunswick

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