‘Maxed Out’: when debt hits hard

Janne O’Donnell is demanding an answer from America’s credit card industry.

“You took my son,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “What more do you want?”

O’Donnell, speaking on a panel at a recent screening of James Scurlock’s documentary on the credit card industry, “Maxed Out,” has reason to be upset. Her son Sean, a National Merit Scholar from Oklahoma, committed suicide after amassing over $12,000 of credit card debt in his first two years at college. O’Donnell participated in the film and the screening because she wants others to understand the devastating impact such debt can have — so that they never go through an experience like hers.

“It’s time to get angry at [credit card] companies and the lawmakers who’ve deregulated the industry,” she said.

“Originally, I wanted to do a film about fast food, but that was already taken,” Scurlock said, referring to Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me.” “I thought of America’s other ridiculous obsessions, like the Realtors in Las Vegas flipping McMansions for no reason,” he said, adding that he’d originally intended to be “touring comedy festivals” with his documentary.

“Maxed Out” chronicles the growing problem of consumer credit card debt in America, placing much of the blame on the industry. The Center for American Progress, which recently sponsored the screening and the panel discussion with Scurlock, O’Donnell, and other activists, cited figures showing that Americans now owe $813 billion in plastic debt, a vast increase since 1980. The Center declared that the companies that finance credit card debt are posting record profit margins.
Panelists were not surprised by these figures. Christian Weller, senior economist at the Center, blamed high interest rates and declining income for Americans’ rapidly increasing debt.

“Most of the purchases that people make under these high rates are necessary items,” he said.

Bud Hibbs, a consumer advocate featured in the film, said, “The bottom line is, the deck is stacked against you from day one. If you’re smart enough to understand that and know that, God bless you; if not, boy are they going to make a lot of money off of you.”

“Consumers think they have a right to privacy,” said David Szwack, a Louisiana-based attorney specializing in litigation against credit bureaus. “The Constitution protects you from the government, but where is your right to privacy from an individual or a private company? Where is your right to privacy from me? And the truth is, there is no right to privacy.”
The screening attracted not just film fans but also legislators, their staffers and others interested in raising awareness of consumer debt.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who introduced the film, described credit card debt as “the number one issue facing America.”
“These cards are a tremendous power, for good and ill,” Cooper said. “Hopefully, this movie could have an impact like that of ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary detailing the dangers of global warming.

Cooper wasn’t the only lawmaker involved with the screening. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) reissued a press release that evening announcing that the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs would hold hearings on credit card practices. 

Cooper called on colleagues to take responsibility for the national deficit, linking the increasing level of consumer debt to that of the nation.

“We here in Congress have been abusing the federal credit card,” he said, citing the $50 trillion to $70 trillion deficit, which he described as “a hidden credit card bill or mortgage payment most people don’t even know they’ve got. If you include programs like Social Security and Medicaid, our national deficit is between $3 and $4 trillion, and it’s increasing at a rate of $95 per second.” 

Figures from Lending Tree indicate that consumers are alarmingly misinformed about the reality of their financial situation: 76 percent have outstanding balances on their credit cards or have personal loans — and 37 percent of those make only the minimum monthly payment — but 40 percent said they felt “knowledgeable about personal finance.”

Scurlock said that he had invited representatives from credit card companies to comment on the film, but none were present at the screening.

Ken Clayton of the American Bankers Association, Card Policy Council raised concerns with the findings detailed in the movie: “A lot of people use [credit cards] in place of cash…We provide access to credit, and we want to provide as broad access as possible.”

Meanwhile, O’Donnell continues to share her son’s story.

She described tying to persuade members of Congress to regulate credit card companies that market on college campuses. In the film, she and another woman who also lost a child to suicide are waiting to speak to a member when four bank lobbyists sweep past them.

“What could we, two moms, do against them?” she asked.

Still, her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. 

“Since we started his film, there have been 23 universities that have said no to credit cards on campus,” O’Donnell said. “It’s time to get angry.”