Book Review: Broke, USA (Rivlin, 2010)

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Published on: 2014.01.21

Full Title: Broke, USA: from pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.: how the working poor became big business
Author: Gary Rivlin
Year: 2010
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN 978-0-06-173321-5
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◊ Summary

Written in the wake of the 2007-08 financial meltdown, Rivlin’s book explores the oft-ignored poverty industries — pawn shops, payday lenders, check cashing stores, subprime credit cards, subprime mortgages, refund anticipation loans, and other “fringe” financing — which prey on the working poor and even the middle class in some cases. He describes the fight by activists and advocates to legislatively limit the harm these industries can do, using personal stories as well as massive amounts of data.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

It bugged me that the chronology of the book seemed to leap around without explanation, and without segues. I realize the author was focusing more on topical portraits of the people and industries involved, but it seems he also intended to be expository and sometimes pretended there was an overriding narrative — if there was one, I never found it.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

I enjoyed Rivlin’s apparent fairness. When the book began, it seemed like he was simply playing the part of liberal attack dog, going after the “bad guys”. But as the book went on, it became obvious that he went to great lengths to present both sides of the story. He personally interviewed some of the major players in the poverty industry, visiting them in their offices, at their conventions, and sometimes even in their homes. He devoted plenty of space to letting them have their say, which is rare in this kind of book.

And when he went after them, he generally did it with numbers and bare facts, rather than flaming rhetoric.

◊ Overall Impression

I’m admittedly a non-economic person, so the whole Great Recession not only caught me by surprise, but was mostly unintelligible to me. (Fortunately, I was also largely unaffected by it.) So I appreciated the candor and plain language of “Broke, USA”, and its layman-terms-only explanations of the subprime mortgage market — not only its demise, but how it got started and why.

Like everyone else, I’ve driven past a thousand check-cashing shops and seen a hundred payday lending commercials (“Check Into Cash” is the one I’ve seen most often), and I’ve even bought and sold at pawnshops, but never thought about the effects of these industries or their basic underlying principles. And therefore I was also unaware of the massive political battles that have been waged to reign them in.

After reading this book, I’m more informed and more aware, and at least understand more about the collapse than I did before.

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