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About This Issue

By Ilze Sprudzs Hirsh

Since the passage of the 1996 welfare law, many recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families have joined the ranks of low-wage workers. Like the rest of Americans conducting business to support their families and pay for everyday expenses, low-wage workers are entitled to the consumer protection of federal and state laws and regulations.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation’s consumer protection agency, charged with protecting consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce. Many state laws also prohibit unfair and deceptive practices in business.

In 2009 the FTC launched its Legal Services Collaboration. With a common goal of protecting consumers, FTC staff, on the one hand, and legal aid attorneys around the country, on the other hand, seek to support each other’s work. The two groups develop ways to serve consumers more efficiently at periodic, regional “Common Ground” conferences; local law enforcement officials contribute to the discussion.

In this theme issue on consumer law, articles discuss a selection of consumer-rights problems of significance to low-income workers and suggest preventive practices and remedies for violations of applicable law. One article identifies educating low-literacy consumers about financial concerns as the best way to prevent fraudulent practices against such consumers. The article describes community consumer education programs developed with the tools offered by the FTC and the Legal Services Collaboration.

Consumer education programs may be good practice for advocates assisting immigrants on questions about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Act is fertile ground, according to another article, for scammers preying on immigrants who are vulnerable due to language, culture, and other barriers. The article proposes preventive strategies and remedies.

Purchasing a car, paying for credit, and even receiving a payroll check appear to be straightforward business transactions for the average consumer. This may not be the case for the low-wage worker; three articles analyze why. One article describes car financing and dealer scams, such as interest-rate markups and yo-yo scams. A second article delves into the fallacies of the arguments supporting payday loans—the common source of credit for many low-income workers. Many payday-loan users may believe, as Bob Hope was said to have quipped, that “a bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need it.” The article offers policy changes for new sources of small amounts of credit. A third article, on the use of payroll cards to pay employee wages, urges advocates to know about payroll-card risks and the applicable Electronic Fund Transfer Act and Regulation E.

This issue’s last article describes empowerment-driven legal practice, a framework that requires the client to be engaged in the legal process and releases the attorney from the expectation to “save” a client. The authors—an attorney and a social worker—discuss the benefits of this framework for lawyers and clients.

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