(With Laurence Barry, we wrote a short article on discrimination against the poor, in French)
In 2013, Martin Hirsch (former director of Emmaüs and Assistance publique – Hôpitaux de Paris) stated “it’s getting expensive to be poor”. This reality was confirmed by a recent study, in France, by the Banque Postale*, which showed that on average, a poor household has to pay 1,500 euros more each year to access the same goods and services as a better-off household, introducing a “double poverty penalty**”. Unfortunately, insurance is not left out: the use of credit scores in many countries reinforces what could be a form of discrimination against the poor. In the United States, where the practice is more common than elsewhere, a commission of inquiry recently tried to explain the link between credit score and claims frequency: is it because, as some insurers argue, people with lower scores are also less careful than others? Or is it because, having less financial means than others, they more naturally ask to be compensated for the losses incurred? And, in this second case, are we not also making them pay twice for their condition?
From excellence to wealth as a virtue
On what criteria do we admire people? For the Greeks, excellence, or arête (ἀρετή), was a major virtue. This excellence went beyond moral excellence: in the Greco-Roman world, the term evoked a form of nobility, recognizable by the beauty, strength, courage, or intelligence of the person. Now this excellence had little to do with wealth: thus Herodotus is astonished that the winners of the Olympian games were content with an olive wreath and a “glorious renown,” peri-bones (περὶ ἀρετῆς). In the Greek ethical vision, especially among the Stoics, a “good life” does not depend on material wealth – a precept pushed to its height by Diogenes who, seeing a child drinking from his hands at the fountain, throws away the bowl he had for all crockery, telling himself that it is again useless wealth.
Greek society is nevertheless a deeply hierarchical society, even if it is organized around values other than material wealth. We can then ask ourselves at what point in Western history wealth became the measure of all things. One thinks then of Max Weber’s theory: the ethics of Protestantism pushes for work and earthly success as a revelation of a divine election to come: the rich of this world would be the chosen of the next. In the same way Adam Smith, taking a critical look at the birth of capitalism in the society of his time, titles a chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) “Of the corruption of our moral feelings occasioned by that disposition to admire the rich and great, and to despise or neglect the poor and lowly.”
Today, the cult of wealth seems to have never been so strong and material success is almost elevated to the rank of virtue. On the other hand, poverty becomes a stigma that is hard to get rid of; but history shows us that this is not natural.
From “good” to “bad” poor
Indeed, the poor have not always been “bad”. As Fulconis & Kikuchi (2017) remind us, the Church has largely contributed to disseminating the image of the “good poor”, as it appears in the Gospels: “happy are you poor, the kingdom of God is yours”; or “God could have made all men rich, but he wanted there to be poor people in this world, so that the rich would have an opportunity to redeem their sins”. Beyond this, the poor is seen as an image of Christ, Jesus having said “whatever you do to the least of these, you will do to me”. Helping the poor, doing a work of mercy, is a means of salvation.
For Saint Thomas Aquinas, charity is thus essential to correct social inequalities by redistributing wealth through almsgiving***. In the Middle Ages, merchants were seen as useful, even virtuous, since they allowed wealth to circulate within the community. Priests played the role of social assistants, helping the sick, the elderly and the disabled. The hospices and xenodochia of the Middle Ages (ξενοδοχεῖον, that “place for strangers,” ξένος) are the symbol of this care of the poor. And quite often, poverty is not limited to material capital, but also social and cultural, to use a more contemporary terminology.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the figure of the “bad poor”, the parasitic and dangerous vagabond, appeared. In line with Weber, Todeschini (2021) insists on the increasing value attached to work and social “usefulness”. Brant (1494), the first, begins to denounce these welfare recipients, “some become beggars at an age when, young and strong, and in full health, one could work: why bother”. For Fulconis & Kikichi (2017), this mistrust is reinforced with the great pandemic of the Black Death. Colombi (2020) returns to this turning point, at the end of the Middle Ages, when in the cities, the bourgeois closed their districts with chains, to avoid that “poor and foreigners” settle there. The hygienic theories of the end of the 19th century added the final touch: if fevers and diseases were caused by insalubrity and poor living conditions, then by keeping the poor out, they were protected from disease.
Poor… by choice?
In the words of Mollat (2006) “the poor are those who, permanently or temporarily, find themselves in a situation of weakness, dependence, humiliation, characterized by the deprivation of means, variable according to the times and the societies, of power and social consideration”. Recently, Cortina (2022) proposed the term “aporophobia”, or “pauvrophobia”, to describe a whole set of prejudices that exist towards the poor. The unemployed are said to be welfare recipients and lazy, says Lamy; it is also the famous “where there is a will there is a way”, (which can be found in contemporary expressions such as “those who don’t want to do anything, those who don’t want to work” or “I’ll cross the street and find you a job”). And as is often the case, these prejudices, which stigmatize a group, “the poor”, lead to fear or hatred, generating an important cleavage, and finally a form of discrimination. Cortina’s (2022) “pauvrophobia” is a discrimination against social precariousness, which would be almost more important than “usual” forms of discrimination, such as racism or xenophobia. Cortina ironically notes that rich foreigners are often not rejected.
But these prejudices also turn into accusations. Szalavitz (2017) thus abruptly asks the question, “Why do we think poor people are poor because of their own bad choices?”. The “actor-observer” bias provides one element of an answer: we often think that it is circumstances, which constrain our own choices, but that it is the behavior of others that changes theirs. In other words, others are poor because they made bad choices, but if I am poor, it is because of an unfair system. This bias is also valid for the rich: winners often tend to believe that they got where they are by their own hard work, and that they therefore deserve what they have.
Social science studies show, however, that the poor are rarely poor by choice, and increasing inequality and geographic segregation do not help. The lack of empathy then leads to more polarization, more rejection and, in a vicious circle, even less empathy.
Links between wealth and risk(s)
To discriminate is to distinguish (exclude or prefer) a person because of his/her “personal characteristics”. Can we then speak of discrimination against the poor? Is poverty (like gender or skin color) a personal characteristic? In Quebec, “social condition” (which explicitly includes poverty) is one of the protected variables and therefore prohibited discrimination. This is not the case in France. As Barry & Charpentier (2021) remind us, when actuaries calculate a premium, discrimination directly linked to risk, and provided that the variable is not protected, is generally seen as legitimate. However, it is well known that wealth or social status has a lot to do with risk, whatever it may be. At the global level, Denis Hatzfeld reminds us that “earthquakes are much more deadly in poor countries than in developed countries, which have gradually learned to protect themselves from them. Similarly, Le Hir (2010) states that “A schoolboy is 400 times more likely to die in an earthquake in Kathmandu than in Tokyo”.
This is true for most risks. In France, we find in the deaths due to road accidents 3% of executives and 15% of workers, while they represent nearly 20% of the working population each, according to ONISR (2022). Blanpain (2018) points out that the gap in life expectancy at birth is 13 years between the most affluent and the most modest men. Recently, Allain (2022) noted that the most modest French people, at comparable age and sex, had almost three times more diabetes, twice as much liver or pancreatic disease, 1.6 times more chronic respiratory disease, etc. than the average. Cambois, Laborde and Robine (2008) similarly noted that the number of years of disability for blue-collar workers is also much higher, over a shorter life span on average.
The use of credit scores in insurance
In North America, companies such as Experian, Equifax and TransUnion keep records of the borrowing and repayment activities of all individuals with bank accounts. FICO (Fair Isaac Corporation) offers a formula to convert these records into a score, the credit score. This score is a function of debt and available credit, income and its variations, and history of incidents, bankruptcies or simple delinquencies. It is often seen as an assessment of a person’s creditworthiness, or the likelihood that he or she will repay debts. It is by nature closely related to income (Crowe 2022), making the credit score a robust proxy for wealth. Fourcade and Healy (2013) show that, as a good credit score has become a necessary condition for obtaining credit and maintaining purchasing power, this system has come to create an impenetrable wall between advantaged and disadvantaged classes. In a sense, a bad credit score becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people with a bad score (and therefore considered high risk by banks) become dependent on short-term alternatives. This increases the costs of future financing, thus the probability of default (François 2021) but also the probability of not finding a job (this score can be requested by employers****). “Using credit scores to punish the poor exacerbates existing socioeconomic inequalities,” Wang (2018) thus aptly asserts.
As an example, Table 1 compares a few parameters based on people’s credit scores, including the rate obtained for a $150,000 loan over a 30-year horizon, and the average insurance premium charged for car insurance (for a 30-year-old driver, driving 20,000km per year, in the city).
Table 1: Actual price of a $150,000 loan and the amount of a car insurance premium (for comparable coverage and risk profile), based on credit score (ranging from 300 to 850). Source: InCharge Debt Solutions.
Kiviat (2019) has extensively studied the use of credit scores in the pricing of auto insurance in the United States. The US regulator has indeed looked at the proven link between bad credit score and auto risk. What explanation can be given for this correlation? Wouldn’t the score be an indicator of poverty and not a proxy for the driver’s prudence as insurers claim? For if social condition is not a protected variable as it is in Canada, it is still largely associated with skin color, which is a prohibited variable. Discriminating on the basis of credit score could therefore amount to prohibited racial discrimination. By examining the debates around these issues, Kiviat highlights the ethical complexity of using facially neutral variables. And if, as noted above, poor living conditions increase risk in general, it is worth asking whether insurance is not helping to apply the double whammy that Martin Hirsch spoke of to the poor.
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* Study entitled “Study of the double poverty penalty in France“, published at the end of 2022 by Action Tank Entreprise & Pauvreté, Boston Consulting Group and the Banque Postale
** This phenomenon, widely studied in the 1960s, see Caplovitz (1963), is known in economics as the “boot theory” (popularized by Pratchett’s novel (1993)), “take boots, for example. A really good pair of leather boots costs fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars (…). But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years.”
*** The notion of redistribution can be contrasted with the “Matthew effect” as defined by Merton (1950). Inspired by a passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew (which he reverses), he states that “to him who has shall be given, and he shall have plenty; but to him who has not, even that which he has shall be taken away.”
**** This rating practice is actually not new and dates back to the late 19th century: Josh Lauer (2017) shows that as early as 1870, so well before big data or even credit cards, US banks employed assessors to make financial strength reports on people. For Lauer, it is a gigantic surveillance system that was set up at the beginning of the 20th century, leading to the algorithmic credit scores as we know them today (see also François (2021)).