June 2013 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

June 2013

Tires and Tribulations: Tire Rentals Gouge the Working Poor

Investigative journalist Ken Bensinger of the LA Times exposes yet another abuse of poor people in a car-dependent society. Well aware that their customers need tires to get to work, tire rental companies like Rent-a-Wheel and Rimco are setting up usurious rent-to-own plans for customers who are too poor to buy upfront: 

When the tires on their Dodge Caravan had worn so thin that the steel belts were showing through, Don and Florence Cherry couldn’t afford to buy a new set.

So they decided to rent instead.

The Rich Square, N.C., couple last September agreed to pay Rent-N-Roll $54.60 a month for 18 months in exchange for four basic Hankook tires. Over the life of the deal, that works out to $982, almost triple what the radials would have cost at Wal-Mart.

“I know you have to pay a lot more this way,” said Florence Cherry, a 57-year-old nurse who drives the 15-year-old van when her husband, a Vietnam veteran, isn’t using it to get to his job as a prison guard. “But we didn’t really have a choice.” [LAT]

The price of tires rose by more than half between 2006 and 2012, as the median household income declined. Companies that used to sell custom rims to auto enthusiasts realized they could make more money gouging ordinary people who needed to get to work.

Tires account for just a tiny slice of the $8.5-billion rent-to-own market. But they stand out from the industry’s traditional fare because — unlike with a dinette set — giving back tires means not being able to drive to work. 

“Tires are a necessity,” said Jim Hawkins, a University of Houston law professor who studies the alternative finance industry. “These customers are vulnerable because they have no choice.” [LAT]

Tire financing combines the worst aspects of borrowing and renting. The real interest rate on a rent-to-own tire plan can be up to 120% per annum, or three times the interest rate of the highest-interest credit cards. However, since you are renting the tires rather than borrowing the money to buy tires, you may get a visit from the police if you miss even one payment. Since the tire company owns the tires until the final payment, some police departments treat non-payment as a species of theft. To make matters worse, tire contracts can’t be discharged in bankruptcy because they are rentals rather than loans.

Bensinger has provided yet another example of how greedy companies make poverty ruinously expensive. 


[Photo credit: pecooper98362, Creative Commons.]



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John Carlos Frey and PBS Need To Know team Win June Sidney Award for Exposing Epidemic of Migrant Deaths Along the Border

John Carlos Frey and the team at PBS’ “Need to Know” (producer Brian Epstein, correspondent John Larson, editor Judith Starr Wolff) won the June Sidney Award for “Crossing the Line: Dying to Get Back,” a documentary about how U.S. immigration policies are killing increasing numbers of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The documentary aired on PBS’ “Need to Know” and was produced with the support of the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute; it is the third in a three-part series on the Border Patrol.

The bleached bones of unnamed migrants are piling up in small town morgues along the border, even though unauthorized crossings are at a historic low. Over two thousand migrant deaths were reported between 1999 and 2012, and the true death toll may be even higher.

Crossings have become more dangerous because the U.S. Border Patrol has deliberately pushed cross-border traffic into inhospitable terrain where migrants risk death from heat stroke and exploitation by human traffickers. The Obama administration’s aggressive policy of deportation has created a new class of desperate migrants: people who have built lives and started families in the United States who find themselves deported to a country they left years earlier. Many of these migrants are willing to risk everything to get back, and some pay the ultimate price. 

Read my Backstory interview with Frey.

Target: Target

Janitors who clean multiple Target stores in the Twin Cities area began a 48-hour strike, Monday. The work stoppage is the latest in a spate of walkouts by low-wage workers in the discount retail and fast food industries. The janitors are demanding parity in pay and benefits with the cleaners who look after Target’s local corporate headquarters. The cleaners at corporate HQ are Target employees represented by SEIU; and they earn over $13 an hour, plus benefits. Whereas their subcontractor counterparts earn just $8.50 with no benefits.

As past Sidney Award-winner Dave Jamieson explains, the workers are also striking over unfair labor practices, namely, management’s alleged interference with their right to organize and bargain collectively. The janitors say that two of their co-workers were fired for attempting to organize. It is all too common for large retailers like Target and Walmart to subcontract the cleaning of their stores to smaller companies that keep their prices low by scrimping on pay, benefits, and job security for their employees. 

[Photo credit: Mr. T. in DC, Creative Commons.]

How Phony Psychics Bilk Their Clients

South Florida is a veritable rat’s nest of phony psychics, Kyle Swenson reports in a remarkable long-form piece for the Miami New Times. Psychic phone scams have become a way of life in some communities. A good fake psychic can make $200,000 to $300,000 a year, investigators say. A psychic will convince the client that he or she has been cursed and demand large sums of money for rituals to lift the curse. One lonely divorcee in England lost $140,000 to a South Florida psychic who called herself “Sienna Miller” and promised the client would be worshipped as a god if she ponied up for amulets, oils, and other high-priced paraphernalia. 


[Photo credit: Inspire Kelly, Creative Commons.]

Why Have 900 Guatemalan Bus Drivers Been Murdered?

Past Sidney winner Dave Jamieson tweeted this heartbreaking story about how driving a bus in Guatemala became one of the world’s most dangerous occupations:

There, in the crowded office, the phone lit up. A man’s voice came on the line. It was calm, almost pleasant. You’re going to pay us taxes now, the voice said: 8,000 quetzales a week—about $1,000. If you don’t, we’re going to start killing your bus drivers.

Palo and the rest of the owners looked at the phone, then at each other. Anyone could get a cell phone, drop it off, and make demands. “We thought someone was just trying to take advantage of us,” Palo said. [TNR]

Saul Elbein, the author, explains how the seemingly bizarre killing spree is one of the far-reaching consequences of a U.S.-backed coup in 1954, the ensuing 40-year civil war in Guatemala, the U.S.’s chilly immigration policy towards refugees displaced by the U.S.-fuelled conflict, gang warfare in Los Angeles, and the deportation of gang-affiliated Guatemalan teenagers from the U.S. to a “home” they had scarcely known. All of these factors, plus extreme inequality, created a fertile breeding ground for organized crime. Post-war reconstruction has been all but overshadowed by crime and corruption, and the U.S. bears much of the blame.