Payday Loans

Are payday loans becoming the biggest social problem on the Coast? Pratsiri Setthapong investigates:

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Donna Langley moved from Adelaide to Gold Coast three years ago hoping to work her way towards a wealthy and successful life.  She was not aware that she was now living in one of most expensive cities of the country, where the majority of her hard earned money would go to rent; car insurance and registration; gas, electricity, water, phone, internet bills and day-to-day essentials. Her casual job in a local club helps her get by but it does not allow her much of a lifestyle.

It only needed a simple unexpected incident to trigger financial hardship so when her partner lost his job two years ago Donna was worried. He found a job a month later but four weeks lost income had a massive impact on their lives. Before she knew it she was getting far behind all the bills. A couple hundred dollars short turned into a thousand. The only option she had as a person without a full-time job or the credit for a bank loan, was a quick cash shop in the neighborhood. It was quick and easy. She thought she had found a save haven.

Many average to low income earners who live in our fast paced society, where money easily comes and goes, are now either struggling to survive, let alone aspire to a better lifestyle.

The Payday business seized this opportunity to encourage people with the financial problem to see Payday loans as the way out. The industry took off despite, or because of, the economic downturn.

Payday loan is a personal loan service offering  small loans from $300 to $2,000 to low income earners. The catch is the significant interest rate. Loan repayments are direct debited from customers’ bank accounts weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The business has been around for more than a decade but the glorious era started in 2008. The global economic crisis wobbled Australia’s financial well being causing  job losses and major banks tightened their loan policies. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, along with the country’s economic downtrend, the unemployment rate in Gold Coast rose up to 4.02% in 2008 from 3.38% in the last quarter of 2007. The recession continued and saw the unemployment rate rise to 5.69% in 2013. People in default, bankruptcy or with bad credit desperately looked for a financial solution in short term.

Cash Converter, the global pawn broking company, originally focused its business on retail secondhand goods.  By 2007 it had shifted its focus to payday lending and became the biggest payday lender chain in Australia. The company’s worldwide revenue growth rocketed 16.4% to $272.7 million in 2013. The growth of its online personal loan service in Australia increased 89% to $26.9 million from $14.2 million in 2012. Out of 148 stores in Australia including franchise-operated premises, 44 branches are located in Queensland – more than any other state. Four of them are located in the Gold Coast area.

The booming market encouraged many other players to enter the market. Money3 offers personal loan up to $20,000 for 30 days to 36 months repayment period. Thorn Group, the company behind Radio Rental has now expanded their service to join the quick cash frenzy under the name of CashFirst. Additionally, there are approximately 30 quick cash stores under the smaller names in the Gold Coast area; the number outstripped the short-term loan shops in many major cities in Australia. 12 stores are located in Southport.

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Created with Datawrapper Source: Yellow Pages the Local Business Directory 2014

Young people aged of 18 to their late 20s are the main market of the payday loan business. Research conducted in 2011 by Gold Coast City Council reported that 58.3% of young people earn less than $400 a week. Tourism and hospitality industry is the key driver of Gold Coast economy and generates the high rate of part-time and casual job. The unstable employment status exposes young people to the payday loan business.

Donna took out her first loan for $250 after her partner lost his job.

“My family and friends told me to stay away from it, but at that moment I was the only one who working and everything was expensive. You didn’t really have any choice. I tried my luck at the bank but without a full time job, they wouldn’t give me a loan.”

The immediacy is the key feature of this product. Lenders can grant the fund instantly within half an hour. The recent emerged online service makes it’s confidential and easy to access and this attracts more people to use the payday loan. “Last month I moved and needed the money for the truck and to fix up some bills. I just went there and got back out with the $250 cash in my hands”

Donna and many customers are not aware of the actual figures of the loan cost. The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) most payday lenders offer is 300% annually. In the longer repayment period agreement, the cost goes up to 1000% per annum. While the standard credit card APR offered by majors banks in Australia range from 13.49% to 10.99% per annum.

“I didn’t really pay attention to those numbers, I just worried about $53 that I have to pay every week, for about six weeks”.

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Payday loan borrowers are not only low income earners either in full-time or part-time employment, businesses also focus on unemployed people who receive benefits from Centrelink. According to Consumer Action survey in 2008, “Although difficult to confirm, between 20% and 30% of borrowers are likely to receive some form of Centrelink benefits. It is possible the figure is much higher.”

Based on Cash Converter figures, the survey also stated that there are approximately 379,000 customers nationwide who take out around 674,000 loans in 2010. This figures suggested that most customers are repeat customers. This back-to back loan leads to ‘debt cycle’

Donna said that in two years, she has taken out loans more than ten times.

Customers continue borrowing new loans and problems occur when they could not stick to the repayment plan.

Veena, a 25 year old mother of two from Coomera, started using  payday loans two years ago when she became pregnant with her second child.

“I was on the benefits as well as my husband but it was not enough to get by. I found this ad in the papers and decided to check them out. I  sighed up with them and took out the first $300. The last time I took out $500, which meant I had to pay back $120 every fortnight. After two payment I realized that I couldn’t afford it anymore. With all the bills and foods and other things for my kids, I fell behind.”

“I was in default and the debt collector company contacted me. Told me that the money would fold up if I couldn’t pay them back in full. I didn’t know what to do and there was no way that I could pay them back, then they took me to court. By that time I owed them $1,500.”

Veena ended up with the settlement of $30 every fortnight. She paid it off after nine months. She never took any loan again.

Payday loan has been the Government’s concern and in the media attention for many years. Social service organizations across the country have launched legal aid and financial counselling services including the No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) which offers loan up to $1200 to low income earners and people in financial crisis and aims to protect them from being exploited by the short term and payday loan business. In 2013, The Age National reported the statement of Salvation Army regarding the poverty problem. “There is a link between homelessness and the debt spiral caused by payday loans.”

When Donna was asked about the No Interest Loan Scheme, she understood that the campaign would provide her more option but she also concerned about its processing timeframe.

“I’m pretty sure that there are many people have been struggling like me and also need help. The service I’ve been using give me cash within ten minutes. Most of the time we just can’t wait because.”

Unlike Veena, many low income earners including Donna will continue to use the payday loan service; even it has been known that its system can push many people into the worse financial situation.

“As long as I can manage to pay back my loan, I think I will keep using it. Nobody wants to be in debt but things always happen. It is not easy knowing that I could lose my job any day and those bills will never stop coming.”

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Is a wave of poverty sinking Gold Coasters?

Scott Kovacevic investigates a wave of poverty threatening to sink Gold Coasters

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Alan Eastwood

The view from Alan Eastwood’s apartment, overlooking a disused bowling club, isn’t a dream vista. Overgrown grass lies sterile in the sun, bleached of colour, forgotten. But, to Alan, his apartment and its view are his most prized and wonderful possession. On a disability pension after a vicious assault left him unable to work, he pours every cent he receives into maintaining his home. But with no other source of income and faced with rising costs, Alan is struggling to keep a roof over his head. And he’s not alone, because on the Gold Coast an increasing number of residents are on the verge of homelessness.

Recent reports show one in seven people are living below the poverty line across Australia. It’s a sobering statistic, one that’s hitting the Gold Coast even harder with an increasing number of people seeking help from crisis services. Over the April-June financial quarter requests for assistance from Blair Athol’s HATS, (providing help to people at risk of homelessness), have nearly doubled. A perfect storm of Government service funding cuts, coupled with a sky-rocketing service costs and a stagnant local economy, is sending more residents spiralling into poverty. For many Gold Coast residents, the reality is that you don’t need to be homeless to need help.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alan’s disability pension ensures he has a roof over his head. But once the rates, utilities and mortgage have been paid, there’s not much left for things like food. “Water here in this little tiny unit is now $100 a month,” he says. “It really is quite ridiculous… money is one of the things we just don’t have much of.” It’s left him relying on charity organisations for meals and he’s not alone. Rosies outreach services say that 50% of patrons at some of their Gold Coast venues have some form of safe accommodation. Blair Athol Accommodation and Support agrees, saying there is clearly a growing trend. Liz Fritz, Blair Athol’s Co-ordinator, is seeing it first hand that for people on Gold Coast, having a home or job is no longer enough to survive.

“What we’re finding is that more of our people that do come for our services have some form of work,” she says. “For example, we have a family – Mom, Dad, two kids – where his take home pay after tax for the week was $622. Now, these people are paying $480 a week in rent and you can see that even with another $150 a week from the Family Tax Benefit there’s not much money left. The mom used to work full-time, but now she’s got two young children to take care of.” She says that overall, the Gold Coast’s homeless network is running at capacity. More and more people are struggling to stay afloat.

Statistically, house rental cost on the Gold Coast sits beneath only Darwin and Sydney. Renting a unit is cheaper than other major cities, but will still set you back $370 per week, numbers compounded by the Gold Coast having a higher rental ratio than both Queensland and Australia. But it’s not just the rent that’s causing stress. Costs for services like electricity and childcare have risen, and the Gold Coast’s stalled job market only adds to the pressure. According to Government estimates the number of local jobs has barely changed over the last five years, despite a steady increase in the population. In fact, Gaven MP Dr. Alex Douglas believes that the official rates of unemployment are worse than reported. “I’d follow the Roy Morgan numbers,” he says “and they show that true unemployment is closer to 10%, and the underemployment level- which we thought was 14%- could be as high as 20-25% in regional places.” He believes underemployment is the biggest concern, with more people forced to cobble multiple jobs together- and it still may not be enough.

Gaven Electorate

Gaven Electorate

Sitting in the heart of Nerang, the electoral office lives cheek to cheek with the economic downturn. The shop next door is vacant, a ‘For Lease’ sign hanging in the window with no indication when it will be shelved. There are several others lingering in windows less than two blocks away. It’s a sign of the times, and Dr. Douglas believes that both Council and Government have contributed to it. “They have done absolutely nothing… in fact, they’ve cut bus services. [In Nerang], you can’t get a bus after 4:30 in the afternoon or on a Saturday or Sunday.”

Alan Eastwood sees it every day. He relies on the Gold Coast’s public transport service to get around, and he says the system isn’t as convenient as it used to be. “We do see a lot of dead bus stops around, where they’ve cut back the bus services tremendously.” As well as it being harder to get to charity and meal support, he says, concession services aren’t always helpful either. “We do get a little sticker on our Go-Card which gives us free travel between 8:30am and 3:30pm from Monday to Friday- but on buses only. If you go on the new tram you must pay.”

Bus fares are just a small part of the problem, though. Gold Coast residents are struggling with larger financial commitments, too. Through June 2014, the northern end of the Gold Coast had the second highest number of debtors in Queensland, and there are claims that Gaven has one of the highest bankruptcy rates in the state. But Dr. Douglas says people’s financial troubles aren’t stopping Governments from trying to collect on their debts at all costs.

“A fellow come to me saying that SPER (State Penalties Enforcement Registry) told him he needs to eat less food. They said he’s got to cut back on his food consumption by $3-$5 a week to meet his commitments. This is a guy who had to retire early, he lives on a pension and he’s a volunteer. They said at one stage they’ll let him work it off, but then said that he can’t because he’s not fit enough… I mean, why do people think SPER isn’t being paid back? Because people don’t have any money. And people might say these are just the one’s and two’s, but it’s not. There are a lot of people affected in the same way.” The intense push by Government to ‘balance the budget’, he says, is stretching people’s incomes beyond breaking point.

Liz Fritz says this belt tightening is causing nervousness within the homeless assistance network, too. “We do know that National Government policy is really wanting to save money, and crisis services are very expensive to run… We’re not certain of the future of emergency relief funding. The Federal Government hasn’t announced the grants for the future yet. We’re still waiting.” Until then all funding is only confirmed until September 30, 2015, while the Government reviews policy with a look at realigning available funding and services. What the final outcome could be is anyone’s guess, leaving charity organisations to secure funding from other sources. Rosies media liaison Cat Milton is quick to point out a problem there, though: there’s only so far money can spread if everyone’s asking for it. And she says private funding can be affected by an increase in poverty, too. “Organisations like Rosies are very much reliant on public generosity, and obviously the harder people are doing it the less they give to us.” And at what point do the existing charity services overload?

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Lee Walsh and Alan Eastwood

For Lee Walsh, retirement hasn’t been as financially secure as he’d hoped. He and his wife own two apartments between them, the fruit of their working years, but what should be a good deal is becoming a monetary nightmare. A recipient of the pension, Lee collects $500 a fortnight. His wife is still ineligible but collects rent from one of their apartments. “It produces $320 a week,” he says. “The Government says that $320 is income, but in reality there’s at least $120 going out in body corporate, and there’s also rates and electricity and water, so it’s really more like $150; but social security says we’re getting $320. So out of that we’re really getting $800 a fortnight that has to cover the two bedroom unit’s rates, body corporate, electricity, water and a car registration. And to sell the property now would entail a $55,000 dollar loss.” Managing their finances is big challenge for a lot of people, and finding help is getting harder.

Over the last 12 months the Queensland Tenancy Advice and Assistance Service has closed its doors, and the Federal Government has discontinued the National Rent Affordability Scheme. Local options have been cut, too: Queensland is the only state in Australia with no dedicated financial counselling program, and several financial counsellor positions on the Gold Coast have reportedly been axed. As a result, charities are finding accessing them is taking longer than ever. Smaller staffs are forced to deal with larger workloads, forcing people to wait longer. But, often, waiting is a luxury they cannot afford. Liz Fritz says that it’s the difference between having a home and living on the street.

“It’s easy for people to try to pay their electricity bills, and then they fall behind on their rent and then they become at risk of homelessness.” Even the old argument of simply working harder backfires in unexpected ways. “You only have to 50 cents over the margin of eligibility to lose a Government concession card, which gets them access to cheaper bus fares and prescriptions. We see people that have gone out and gotten themselves a few extra hours work and it’s pushed them over the threshold.” Having an extra job or extra hours brings added costs, and one step ahead quickly becomes three steps behind.

Once people do become homeless, Cat Milton says, they quickly find themselves caught in a snowball effect. “To get a Centrelink payment you need an address, so that’s a pretty big stumbling point right there. They process payments online now, which helps, but that requires access to an internet connection. Quite a number of our patrons have mobile phones- which allows them on the internet- but then they’ve got to charge it. If you have a phone that is charged then you are contactable, which means you can access your payments and be available for job interviews, but then being presentable for a job interview is quite tricky.

In a black and white world identifying and helping people before they become homeless is the ideal solution. It’s one the State Government has identified, recently providing new funding for Blair Athol’s HATS program. But reality is grey, and homeless assistance is plagued by a problem familiar to other social assistance groups. “People are embarrassed,” Liz says. “They never expected to be in these sorts of situations and find it very difficult to look for handouts.” Away from charities, people can be left asking their families for help; but even if they do, there’s no guarantee that their families aren’t struggling too, or even that their family lives on the coast. Some people then find only options left are to cheat the system or find work ‘under the table’.

Dr. Douglas believes we’re at risk of creating an underclass on the Gold Coast; that people that can’t afford help will be turned away by an overburdened system, which will result in more problems for generations to come with no ability to help them. Liz Fritz echoes this fear. “We can only do what we can do. So people will either be required to wait for services, or they just won’t be able to get them.” And if charities can no longer help, where will Gold Coast residents like Alan and Lee turn then?