Currency exchanges’ higher check-cashing rates hurt poor

By Mary Mitchell, The Chicago Sun-Times
 
CHICAGO, September 13 -- Antwain Miller, 40, is barely staying afloat.
 
On some days, he puts on his “Lugenia Burns Hope Center” T-shirt and canvases the neighborhood, rallying residents in Bronzeville around issues that affect their day-to-day lives.
 
On most nights, he’s at his security job.
 
Between the two gigs, he takes home a little more than $600 a pay period.
 
“We have six kids in our household. I work. My girl works as a cashier. We are real low-income, but we are making it,” Miller told me.
 
But every time he turns around, a bigger nibble is being taken out of his meager income.
 
This time it’s the currency exchange. 
 
Miller was one of a dozen people who showed up at a public hearing on Wednesday to oppose a proposed “double digit” increase in rates Illinois currency exchanges may charge customers for cashing checks.
 
In June, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation quietly signed off on the following new rate caps: 2.50 percent, plus $1 on checks up to $100; 2.50 percent on checks $100.01 to $1,250.00; and 3.00 percent on checks over $1,250.01.
 
The current rates, approved in 2007, are 1.4 percent plus $1.00 for checks up to $100 and 2.25 percent for checks above $100.
 
Woodstock Institute, an advocate for low-income persons and communities of color, vigorously opposes the rate increase.
 
“As a price to participate in our economy, lower income folks are hit with all sorts of fees that essentially target them: late fees, overdraft fees, credit limit fees and check-cashing fees,” said Brent E. Adams in his written testimony at a public hearing.
 
“At Woodstock, we believe our financial system ought to be investing in tools to enable consumers to lift themselves up, not using them to prop up an industry,” Adams said.
 
Woodstock has offered a counter-proposal to the rate increase that would exempt government issued checks, including public assistance and government payroll checks. All printed payroll checks would be capped at the current top rate, 2.25 percent.
 
That offer was ignored.