OPINION: Want to help the poor? Let’s start with how they’re treated

SUMMERTOWN, GA - JULY 14, 2020: Volunteers with the Summertown Food Pantry load bed of a pickup truck with items during the mobile food drive at the Summertown Baptist Church. Members of the pantry will deliver this load to rural poor who can not make it to the food drive. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

As a former president of Headline News and the executive vice president before that at CNN, Bob Furnad had navigated a lot of stories.

The Gulf War. The Challenger liftoff and explosion. President Richard M. Nixon’s death.

At home, they were of a different sort, stories that didn’t make the nightly news but were just as moving, just as important.

Stories about the poor, people down on their luck, who for every step forward they managed to make, they took three steps back.

Those were the stories his wife, Barbara, shared at the dinner table at the end of each day, the stories we rarely get to hear.

“Her stories really struck a chord with me,” he told me recently.

In each of them, Furnad learned how the poor are forced to live, how they have to scrape to get by, how they are taken advantage of from one day to next in ways most of us can’t even fathom.

And so when he retired in 2001, after nearly 17 years at CNN, Furnad decided to join his wife as a volunteer at FISH.

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FISH stands for Faith in Serving Humanity, a Christian outreach ministry sponsored by a group of Walton County churches and volunteers. The idea is to be the feet and hands of Jesus, to provide spiritual guidance by our actions, financial support, and food to those who need it most.

Furnad signed on almost immediately to be an intake counselor, and as such, it was his job to, well, get people’s stories.

In other words, what mix of circumstances led them to the ministry’s doors?

Former CNN executive Bob Furnad says he's horrified at how the poor are treated. Courtesy of Bob Furnad

Credit: Courtesy of Bob Furnad

Credit: Courtesy of Bob Furnad

Some were made up (that is, people lied), but the vast majority had just fallen on rough times and were unable to pay rent or utilities.

One day, Furnad recalled, a woman handed him the documentation he needed to verify her story and let me tell you, he’d never seen anything like it.

Among the paperwork the woman provided was a title loan.

We hear a lot about how providing social service programs to the poor serves to only make poverty more comfortable. Witness how many times we’ve heard people argue that providing $600-a-week jobless benefit supplements to those who’ve lost jobs recently because of COVID-19 encourages people not to work.

We forget that poverty is about money — the lack of it, the inability to make it grow or borrow it. If you’re poor, you’d be hard-pressed to do either of those things because banks aren’t willing to give you a loan.

If you thought credit unions and savings and loans were created for this reason, you’d be correct.

If you thought that was the role of predatory check cashers and payday lenders, you’d be correct, too.

The latter quickly filled the void when banks stopped fulfilling that mission.

Here’s the problem with that. Payday lenders don’t provide useful credit to the poor. They simply bury them in debt.

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I have a sister who has fallen victim to these more than once.

I’d bet the woman at FISH that day had, too.

Furnad asked her, do you know the interest on your loan?

No, she answered.

305%, he told her.

Is that a lot? she asked him.

Furnad was horrified.

“She was just trying to survive,” he said.

Five years later, Furnad left FISH and moved to Covington, where he started a similar organization called FaithWorks, a church-supported nonprofit that helps poor people with rent and utilities.

Furnad doesn’t remember what happened to the woman with the title loan, but he never forgot her.

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He tried incorporating a budgeting class that he taught once a month but soon discovered that people didn’t have enough income to make a budget.

“Basically I was wasting their time,” he said. “I modified it, providing tips on how to save on their water and electricity bills.”

That included not running the water during the entire shower and rather than accepting the first loan they’re offered, shopping around for the best interest rate.

He told me of another scheme the poor get caught in at “buy-here-pay-here” used car businesses.

In this case, the dealer had a good-looking truck with 100,000 miles.

Furnad jotted the vehicle identification number down and at home paid the fee for a CarFax report on the truck.

Turns out it had 256,000 miles on it and was salvage (in other words, junk).

“Those who shop at such car lots do not know of or have the financial means to pay the fee, and may not even have internet access,” he said. “That’s how we treat the poor in this country of plenty.”

Furnad finally retired, leaving behind the program he started in 2016 because he just didn’t have the heart to do the work anymore.

“You hear so many of these stories, how they’re forced to live and it just weighs on you emotionally,” Furnad said. “It takes a toll. It was so bad I wasn’t sure what I was doing was making a difference.”

As someone who has done her share of volunteer work, I understand. How to pull people up from poverty has perplexed policymakers for, well, forever.

All I know is we can’t give up trying and we can start by addressing the barriers to low-cost credit the poor face but is available to the rest of us.

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