Wonga: protecting the poor from themselves

Last week, students at the University of East London presented a petition of 1,000 signatures to Newham Council in an attempt to extend its university-wide ban on payday loan advertising throughout the entire borough.

On the surface, who could disagree with this campaign? Companies like Wonga, which offer short-term loans with extremely high interest rates, seem aimed at exploiting the poor and desperate. However, this campaign springs from the idea that because those who use payday loans are often poor, they are necessarily prone to bad decision-making. The students’ focus on negative campaigning - to ban all advertising - as opposed to promoting positive alternatives, such as credit unions, hints at a worrying presumption of the poor as incapable of self-help and easily duped by seductive advertising. It also suggests that taking a short-term, high-interest loan is always a bad move, rather than a reasoned last resort in less-than-ideal circumstances.

Clearly, the campaigners have little or no understanding of the lives of those they wish to help. Led by UEL politics lecturer Tim Hall, the entire campaign appears like the pet project of a self-congratulating student body, looking to bestow its wisdom on delinquents who need to be guided toward making the ‘right’ decisions.

This campaign will only produce superficial victories over the perceived threat of payday loans. However, it will give credence to the idea that the poor are naturally more feckless than the rest of us and should have their options limited by high-minded campaigners. From payday loans to calls for minimum pricing on cheap alcohol, it seems the well-to-do are hell-bent on restricting the freedoms of Britain’s poor for their own good. While the campaign’s intent - to lessen the impact of companies like Wonga - is no bad thing, it could, if unchanged, have as negative an impact on the lives of poor people as the payday loan companies it seeks to curb.

Jacob Diamond is an undergraduate student of international politics at King’s College London and a spiked intern.

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