If the “ultimate moral test” of any government is found in the way it treats its children, needy and elderly, as Hubert Humphrey once said, then Maryland is failing by any objective measure. According to recent census data, the poverty rate in the state has increased 19 percent since 1990, and the number of people living in poverty has increased 50 percent from 385,296 in 1990 to 576,835 in 2016. Nearly half of renters are cost-burdened, almost 40 percent of Marylanders have no emergency savings, and almost 20 percent are employed in low-wage jobs.
Today, much of the work protecting the groups that Humphrey references falls to several federal agencies including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Education, which addresses civil and disability rights in schools, student loans and other areas.
Yet, at the federal level, administration officials are moving these agencies in precisely the wrong direction.
CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney closed the Office of Students and Young Consumers, halted all new investigations, dropped cases against payday lenders, and has failed to impose a single fine or penalty on wrongdoers. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has infamously worked to undermine protections for students by scaling back investigations of for-profit colleges, delaying refunds to students who were defrauded by for-profit schools, dismissing civil rights cases and rescinding guidance to protect students from sexual assaults. Meanwhile, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has pulled tools to help advocates identify housing discrimination, proposed tripling rental costs for subsidized housing, and paused several fair housing investigations.
Therefore, it’s clear that any efforts to protect economic rights must happen at the state level. Maryland’s General Assembly has made strides in the past few years: expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, passing sick leave, creating a Consumer Financial Protection Commission, ending payday loans, and increasing regulation and financial redress for Maryland students at for-profit schools. Despite these gains, more needs to be done to extend protections for vulnerable Marylanders and promote policies and programs that strengthen the social safety net and expand economic rights.
But you wouldn’t know any of this by reading the policy platforms of Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates. With a month to go, most Democratic candidates and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan have nary a word to say about consumer protection or ways to promote economic rights for the most vulnerable of our citizens.
While the Democratic nominees’ campaigns lay out a vision for how each will tackle the challenges facing Maryland families, they do so with the upbeat positivity of self-help evangelists. How can one talk about public transportation — an important long-term objective — without addressing the fact that Maryland’s auto insurance rates for limited liability coverage are some of the highest in the nation? Many candidates support increasing the minimum wage, but why do none address the fact that for 30 years Maryland hasn’t raised the amount of wages a low-wage worker can protect from garnishment?
Two Democratic candidates address some of the issues most likely to help low-income Marylanders, but they don’t go far enough. Ben Jealous’ campaign proposes debt-free college and refinancing for student loans but says nothing about how the state would protect students from predatory, for-profit colleges that target youth of color. Mr. Jealous wants to eliminate cash bail for criminal justice issues — critically important — but is silent on the plight of individuals arrested and jailed for civil debts including debt owed to hospitals, landlords or bail bondsmen.
Notably, state Sen. Rich Madeleno’s campaign platform most clearly and directly addresses consumer protection, noting his sponsorship of a Consumer Financial Protection Act in 2018, as well as ensuring strong consumer protections for homeowners considering reverse mortgages that primarily affect older adults. However, the campaign fails to mention many of the other consumer protection issues that were introduced this year or in 2017.
While it is natural for candidates to focus on how the state will benefit under their leadership, a relentlessly positive perspective reduces the complexities of the many difficult issues facing Maryland to sound-bites, reinforcing the notion that individualism and meritocracy is more myth than fact these days.
We need collective action rather than individual boot-straps to succeed. Sometimes the best we can do is provide care and comfort for the most vulnerable. While it is not as exciting as creating a state full of tech-savvy, debt-free, high-earning residents, helping the poorest and most vulnerable among us through programs and policy change is a test we can no longer afford to fail.
Marceline White is executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.