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.
Martin Lieberman, president of the Community Currency Exchange Association of Illinois, testified that the rate increase is needed because the currency exchange industry is “hurting.”
“We’ve lost 187 stores in the last 9 years. A lot fewer checks are being cashed. From 2008-2015, check cashing revenues have decreased by 43%, check cashing revenues per currency exchange have decreased by over $50,000, expenses per store have increased, net revenues for the industry have decreased by 60%, and net revenues per store are down by 45%,” Liberman said in prepared remarks.
Jaribu Princella Lee, an organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, managed to round up a handful of community groups to show up at the hearing.
Unfortunately, they weren’t able to testify because they did not have written statements.
“This was done under the radar. I called 10 community organizations and none of them knew anything about this. There were about 15 people here, and eight of them were with the billionaires trying to get a rate increase,” she said.
Frances Banks, 76, lives in a senior building, she objects to the increase because she doesn’t have options.
“There are no banks in my area — period,” she pointed out.
Miller said his family uses the currency exchange for “everything.”
“We go to the currency exchange, for all our needs — bill payment, cashing checks. We can’t afford bank accounts,” he said.
“It is already costing me almost $20 to cash my check. But [government] is not really concerned about folks who can’t bank. They are penalizing folks that have to go to the currency exchange,” he added.
The currency exchange is indeed vital to poor communities.
But hitting low-income consumers with such a hefty increase is akin to kicking them when they are down.