Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry

In 2014, Susanne Soederberg published "Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry: Money, Discipline and the Surplus Population" presenting a unique counter-narrative to many of the global development buzzwords (such as financial inclusion). The book focuses on examples in two countries, each with unique examples. In the US, the author examines credit cards, student loans and payday loans. For Mexico, there are chapters on the international financial system, microfinance and housing. Anyone interested in and/or doing research on financial inclusion or microfinance should engage this, if for nothing else as an important counter-narrative.


"Both PROGRESA and Oportunidades were specifically aimed at appeasing and depoliticising the increasing presence of resurgent popular movements, while acting as a bromide for the masses, so as to signal political stability and a well-disciplined and relatively cheap labour market made possible by ongoing forms of the structural violence of labour, e.g., dereliction of labour laws and the dominance of precarious work (Wacquant, 2009). True to neoliberal assumptions and mirroring the US workfare state, Oportunidades strives to create a disciplined and productive labour force for the future by conferring greater responsibilities on the poor by drawing on the social power of money as a mechanism whereby the poor can begin to resolve their problems without relying on society" (p. 59-60)

"This strategy of extending the democratisation of credit to undocumented workers allows the banks to break through barriers to capital accumulation while enticing 'non-citizens' to become part of the community of money, where they can experience (temporarily) formal equality and freedom. This also allows illegal workers to build a credit history so they can purchase cars, homes and other big ticket items on credit ('Bank of America Casts Wider Net for Hispanics', 13 February 2007, Wall Street Journal). Again, the state plays a paradoxical role in terms of its support for the expansion of the community of money. On the one hand, it must be actively seen to clamp down on illegal immigrants and thereby to feed the social construction of protecting the interests of the American worker by demonising the 'other'. At the same time, the state's highly visible and coercive crackdowns on illegal workers serve to instil constant fear and, by extension, discipline among this segment of the surplus population ('Illegal-immigration crackdown on Chipotle restaurants could hurt workers, activist says', LA Times, 7 February 2011). On the other hand, the state has stepped in to ensure that undocumented workers pay taxes through the single taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the Internal Revenue Service and have access to formal banking facilities, such as credit cards, mortgages and so forth in order to allow them to function at the bare minimum as market citizens ('Embracing Illegals: companies are getting hooked on the buying power of 11 million undocumented immigrants', BusinessWeek, 18 July 2005)." (p. 93-94)

"Registering $1trillion in April 2012, student loans in the United States exceeded the total amount of all other forms of unsecured consumer debt.1 Educational loans remain the only form of consumer debt to markedly increase since the peak of household debt in late 2008 (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2012). The student loan industry is comprised not only of private lending institutions, such as Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase, but also the US state, which operates its own lending facility. This formidable component of the US poverty industry has become a highly lucrative venture for private lenders." (p. 104)

"To sum up: In contrast to neoliberal postulates that market-led growth delivers universal benefits, capital accumulation in Mexico has yielded profits and interest generating income for powerful capitalists, both inside and outside of the country, to the detriment of over half the population, who are surplus labour toiling in the economically precarious and insecure spaces of informality. Aside from revealing the roots of impoverishment of the so-called 'base of the pyramid', the above analysis has sought to shift our gaze away from the narrow and depoliticising boundaries of the realm of exchange, where the naturalisation of poverty and much of the analyses of the microfinance industry takes place, to the wider dynamics of capital accumulation." (p. 199) 

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