How Alabama Arise is working to build a brighter future after the pandemic

After a year of darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. Promising vaccine news offers hope that public health officials can rein in COVID-19 in the coming months. And as our state and nation seek policy solutions to rebuild from the pandemic’s health and economic devastation, Alabama Arise will seek to advance equity and shared prosperity for Alabamians who are marginalized and excluded.

That vital work won’t be fast or easy. In the meantime, the pandemic’s harrowing toll continues to grow. COVID-19 has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide, including more than 3,900 Alabamians, and sickened tens of millions. It has fueled a deep recession, caused millions of layoffs and left more than 40% of U.S. children living in households struggling to make ends meet. It has stretched hospitals to the breaking point and disrupted education, commerce and social interactions in every community.

The Alabama Legislature will begin its 2021 regular session Feb. 2. As the health and economic tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount, Alabama Arise will keep working hard to empower people who live in poverty and to lift up their voices in state policy debates.

COVID-19 has created suffering on a staggering scale. It also has highlighted long-standing economic and racial disparities and underscored the urgency of ending them. A new legislative session and a new presidency will offer new opportunities to right those wrongs in 2021 and beyond.

The federal and state work ahead

The most immediate needs will require federal action. Congress must extend state aid and additional unemployment insurance (UI) benefits before they expire this month. But those extensions should be just a down payment on a more comprehensive response.

Arise will urge further UI benefit increases and more federal relief to help states avoid layoffs and damaging cuts. We also will advocate for emergency rental and mortgage assistance and a 15% boost to food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And we’ll support regulatory efforts to lift harmful Medicaid and SNAP barriers created in recent years.

Flyer on Alabama Arise's 2021 issue priorities. For more information, visit https://www.alarise.org/news-releases/alabama-arise-unveils-members-2021-roadmap-for-change.

We’ll also keep working for better state policies when the Legislature returns in February. Our top focus will be Medicaid expansion, which we’ll pursue along with partners in the Cover Alabama Coalition. Expansion would cover more than 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes and ease the financial strain on rural hospitals. It also would attack structural health care disparities that led COVID-19 to take a disproportionate toll on Black Alabamians.

Arise’s work won’t stop there. We’ll support legislation to expand voting rights and ensure broadband internet access for all Alabamians. We’ll seek to increase consumer protections and overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. And we’ll fight to untax groceries once and for all.

Breakthroughs on many of these issues won’t be fast or easy. But together, we’ll emerge from dark times into the light of a brighter, more inclusive future for Alabama.

Alabama Arise unveils members’ 2021 roadmap for change

Sentencing reform and universal broadband access are two new goals on Alabama Arise’s 2021 legislative agenda. Members voted for Arise’s issue priorities this week after nearly 300 people attended the organization’s online annual meeting Saturday. The seven issues chosen were:

  • Tax reform, including untaxing groceries and ending the state’s upside-down deduction for federal income taxes, which overwhelmingly benefits rich households.
  • Adequate budgets for human services like education, health care and child care, including Medicaid expansion and extension of pre-K to serve all eligible Alabama children.
  • Criminal justice reform, including repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act and changes to civil asset forfeiture policies.
  • Voting rights, including automatic universal voter registration and removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians.
  • Payday and title lending reform to protect consumers from getting trapped in debt.
  • Death penalty reform, including a law to require juries to be unanimous in any decision to impose a death sentence.
  • Universal broadband access to help Alabamians who have low incomes or live in rural areas stay connected to work, school and health care.

“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “And our 2021 issue priorities would break down many of the policy barriers that keep people in poverty. We can and will build a more inclusive future for our state.”

Graphic naming Alabama Arise's 2021 issue priorities

The urgent need for criminal justice reform

Alabama’s criminal justice system is broken and in desperate need of repair. The state’s prisons are violent and dangerously overcrowded. Exorbitant court fines and fees impose heavy burdens on thousands of families every year, taking a disproportionate toll on communities of color and families who are already struggling to make ends meet. And Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture policies let law enforcement seize people’s property even if they aren’t charged with a crime.

Arise will continue to seek needed reforms in those areas in the coming year. The organization also will work for repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), the state’s “three-strikes” law. The HFOA is an unjust driver of sentencing disparities and prison overcrowding in Alabama. The law lengthens sentences for a felony conviction after a prior felony conviction, even when the prior offense was nonviolent. Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes because of the HFOA. Thousands more have had their sentences increased as a result. Repealing the law would reduce prison overcrowding and end some of Alabama’s most abusive sentencing practices.

Universal broadband access would help struggling Alabamians stay connected

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the essential role that the internet plays in modern life. Remote work, education, health care and shopping are a reality for millions in our state today. But far too many Alabamians, especially in rural areas, can’t access the high-speed broadband that these services require. These access challenges also reveal a racial disparity: About 10% each of Black and Latino households have no internet subscription, compared to 6% of white households.

Policy solutions can facilitate the investments needed to ensure all Alabamians can stay connected. Lawmakers can help by guaranteeing that all communities have the right to own, operate or deploy their own broadband services. The Legislature also can enact targeted and transparent tax credits to promote broadband for underserved populations.

Town Hall Tuesdays: What we heard from Arise supporters

Listening is often an underdeveloped skill, yet it is critical for mutual understanding and working together for meaningful change. That’s why Arise is committed to listening to our members, to our allies and most importantly, to those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear from you to guide our issue work and our strategies.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to be creative in finding ways to listen. Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings around the state, we hosted a series of six statewide online Town Hall Tuesdays. We held events every two weeks, starting in June and ending Sept. 1. We averaged 65 attendees at each session. Here’s some of what we heard from members and supporters:

  • Affirmation for Medicaid expansion, untaxing groceries and other current Arise issues as important for achieving shared prosperity.
  • Empathy for those who were already living in vulnerable circumstances further strained by the pandemic.
  • Concern about ongoing, intentional barriers to voting, especially during the pandemic.
  • Desire to see more resources to meet the needs of our immigrant neighbors.
  • Alarm about payday and title lending and its impact on people’s lives and our communities.
  • Passion and concern about many other issues, including housing; living wages and pay equity; prison and sentencing reform; gun safety; juvenile justice reform; defunding the police; the Census; environmental justice; quality and funding of public education; and food insecurity and nutrition.
  • Willingness to take informed actions to make a difference in the policies that impact people’s lives.
  • Hope that Alabama can be a better place for all our neighbors to live despite systemic issues and ongoing challenges.

Notes from each town hall

Overviews of the town halls are below. Click the title for a PDF of the notes from the breakout sessions at each town hall.

June 23 – Money talks
We examined how to strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet. And we explored ways to fund those services more equitably.

July 7 – Justice for all
We discussed Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system and how to fix it.

July 21 – Getting civic
Discussion focused on protecting voting rights and boosting Census responses during a pandemic.

Aug. 4 – Shared prosperity
We looked at policy solutions to boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation.

Aug. 18 – Feeding our families
We explored ways to increase household food security during and after the recession.

Sept. 1 – Closing the coverage gap
Discussion focused on how everyone can help expand Medicaid to ensure coverage for hundreds of thousands of struggling Alabamians. We also heard about the expansion campaign strategies of the Cover Alabama Coalition, headed by Arise campaign director Jane Adams.

Get in touch and stay in touch with Arise

Remember, we didn’t stop listening because the town halls ended. We want to hear from you, and we encourage you to contact the Arise organizer in your area:

We hope to see you at Arise’s online annual meeting Oct. 3!

You’re invited to Arise’s Town Hall Tuesdays!

Arise’s statewide online summer listening sessions are a chance to hear what’s happening on key state policy issues and share your vision for our 2021 policy agenda. Register now to help identify emerging issues and inform our work to build a better Alabama.

We’d love to see you at any or all of these sessions! Registration is required, so please register at the link under each description.

June 23rd, 6 p.m. Money talks

How can we strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet? And how can we fund those services more equitably? Click here to register for this session.

July 7th, 6 p.m. Justice for all

We’ll discuss Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system – and how to fix it. Click here to register for this session.

July 21st, 6 p.m. Getting civic

How can we protect voting rights and boost Census responses during a pandemic? Click here to register for this session.

August 4th, 6 p.m. Shared prosperity

Policy solutions can boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation. Click here to register for this session.

August 18th, 6 p.m. Feeding our families

How can we increase household food security during and after the recession? Click here to register for this session.

September 1st, 6 p.m. Closing the coverage gap

Join the Cover Alabama Coalition to discuss how you can help expand Medicaid. Click here to register for this session.

Protection from predatory lenders should be part of Alabama’s COVID-19 response

While COVID-19 forces Alabamians to deal with health concerns, job losses and drastic disruption of everyday life, predatory lenders stand ready to take advantage of their misfortune. Our state policymakers should act to protect borrowers before these harmful loans make the pandemic’s financial devastation even worse.

The volume of high-cost payday loans, which can carry annual percentage rates (APRs) of 456% in Alabama, has decreased temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that is simply because payday lenders require a person to have a job to get a loan. The national unemployment rate jumped to nearly 15% in April, and it may be higher than 20% now. In a sad twist, job losses are the only thing separating some Alabamians from financial ruin due to payday loans.

Title loans: A different kind of financial poison

As payday loan numbers have dropped, some borrowers probably have shifted to auto title loans instead. But title loans are just a different, and arguably even worse, kind of financial poison.

Like payday lenders, title lenders can charge triple-digit rates – up to 300% APR. But title lenders also use a borrower’s car title as collateral for the loan. If a borrower can’t repay, the lender can keep the vehicle’s whole value, even if it exceeds the amount owed.

The scope of this problem in our state is unknown. Alabama has a statewide payday loan database, but no similar reporting requirements exist for title lenders. That means the public has no way to know how many people are stuck in title loan debt traps.

Title lenders in Alabama don’t require people to be employed to take out a loan with their vehicle as collateral. People who have lost their jobs and feel they lack other options can find themselves paying exorbitant interest rates. And they can lose the transportation they need to perform daily tasks and provide for their families.

Federal and state governments can and should protect borrowers

Long after people who lost their jobs return to work, the financial damage from the pandemic will linger. Bills will pile up, and temporary protections against evictions and mortgage foreclosures likely will disappear. Some struggling Alabamians will turn to high-cost payday or title loans in desperation to pay for rent or utilities. If nothing changes, many of them will end up pulled into financial quicksand, spiraling into deep debt with no bottom.

State and federal governments both can provide protections to prevent this outcome. At the federal level, Congress should include the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act (VCFCA) in its next COVID-19 response. The VCFCA would cap payday loan rates at 36% APR for veterans and all other consumers. This is the same cap now in effect under the Military Lending Act for active-duty military personnel and their families.

At the state level, Alabama needs to increase transparency and give borrowers more time to repay. A good first step would be to require title lenders to operate under the same reporting duties that payday lenders do. Enacting the 30 Days to Pay bill or a similar measure would be another meaningful consumer protection.

The Legislature had an opportunity before the pandemic hit Alabama this year to pass 30 Days to Pay legislation. SB 58, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would have guaranteed borrowers 30 days to repay payday loans, up from as few as 10 days under current law. But the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, chaired by Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, voted 8-6 against the bill early in the session.

That narrow vote came after the committee canceled a planned public hearing without advance notice. It also happened on a day when Orr was unavailable to speak on the bill’s behalf.

Alabamians want consumer protections

Despite the Legislature’s inaction, the people of Alabama strongly support reform of these harmful loans. Nearly three in four Alabamians want to extend payday loan terms and limit their rates. More than half support banning payday lending entirely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many deficiencies in past state policy decisions. And Alabama’s lack of meaningful consumer protections continues to harm thousands of people every year. The Legislature has the opportunity and the obligation to fix these past mistakes. Our state officials should protect Alabamians, not the profit margins of abusive out-of-state companies.

Arise legislative recap: Feb. 14, 2020

Alabama borrowers suffered a setback Wednesday when a Senate committee blocked a payday lending reform bill. Policy analyst Dev Wakeley talks about what happened and where we go from here.

In a setback for Alabama borrowers, Senate committee blocks payday lending reform bill

Nearly three in four Alabamians support a strict 36% interest rate cap on payday loans. But public sentiment wasn’t enough Wednesday to convince a state Senate committee to approve even a modest new consumer protection.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 8-6 against SB 58, also known as the 30 Days to Pay bill. This proposal, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would give borrowers 30 days to repay payday loans. That would be an increase from as few as 10 days under current state law.

The annual percentage rate (APR) for a two-week payday loan in Alabama can climb as high as 456%. Orr’s plan would cut the APR by about half and put payday loans on a cycle similar to other bills. This wouldn’t be comprehensive payday lending reform, but it would make life better for thousands of Alabamians.

About one in four payday borrowers in our state take out more than 12 loans per year. These repeat borrowers pay nearly half of all payday loan fees assessed across Alabama. The 30 Days to Pay plan would give these households a little breathing room to avoid spiraling into deep debt.

None of those facts stopped a majority of Banking and Insurance Committee members from kneecapping SB 58. The committee canceled a planned public hearing without advance notice, even though people drove from as far away as Huntsville to testify in support. Then the committee rejected the bill on a day when Orr was unavailable to speak on its behalf. Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, did an admirable job of presenting in Orr’s place.

The ‘no’ vote and what’s next for payday lending reform

Here’s how the committee voted on SB 58:

Voted No
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope
Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro
Sen. Randy Price, R-Opelika
Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville
Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville (chairman)
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro
Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn
Sen. Jack Williams, R-Wilmer (vice chairman)

Voted Yes
Sen. David Burkette, D-Montgomery
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham
Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills

Absent
Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery

Alabamians should be able to rely on legislators to protect their interests and implement policies reflecting their values and priorities. Sadly, the Banking and Insurance Committee failed in those duties Wednesday. But one disappointing vote didn’t change the need for meaningful protections for Alabama borrowers. And it won’t stop Alabama Arise’s work to make that happen. We’ll continue to build pressure for payday lending reform in communities across the state.

In the meantime, we’re pleased to see bipartisan support in Congress for meaningful change at the federal level. The Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act (HR 5050) would set a nationwide 36% rate cap on payday loans. That would allow all Americans to benefit from protections already in place for active-duty military members and their families. And it would ensure a short-term loan wouldn’t become a sentence to months or years of deep debt.

Click here to contact your U.S. House member about HR 5050.

Arise legislative recap: Feb. 7, 2020

The Alabama Legislature’s 2020 regular session has begun, and we’re excited about the opportunities ahead to make life better for struggling Alabamians. Arise’s Pres Harris explains why we need you with us at Legislative Day on Feb. 25. She also highlights some early progress on payday lending reform.

Arise 2020: Our vision for a better Alabama

Alabama Arise members have worked for more than three decades to build a brighter, more inclusive future for our state. And as the Legislature’s 2020 regular session starts Tuesday, we’re proud to renew that commitment.

Below, Arise executive director Robyn Hyden highlights some key goals for the session, including Medicaid expansion and untaxing groceries.

How you can make a difference

Together, we can turn our shared vision for a better Alabama into a reality. Here are three ways you can help:

(1) Become an Arise individual member. Numbers matter. The more members we have, the louder our voice for change is at the State House. If you’re not yet an Arise member, click here to become one today. If you’re already a member, please ask your friends and neighbors to join us as well!

(2) Talk to your legislators. Make sure your lawmakers know where you stand on our issues. Click here to sign up for our action alerts. And if you can, come meet your lawmakers in person at Arise’s annual Legislative Day on Feb. 25 in Montgomery. Click here to pre-register before Feb. 14.

(3) Spread the word about our issue priorities. The more people learn about our movement, the more support we gain. Read more about our 2020 issue priorities and share this information with your friends:

Together, we can make Alabama a place where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Together, we can build a better Alabama!

Arise 2020: Stop the debt trap for Alabama payday borrowers

A small loan shouldn’t be a sentence to months or years of deep debt. Everyone who needs to borrow money should have a reasonable pathway to repaying a loan without excessive costs. But in Alabama, high-cost payday loans cost struggling people tens of millions of dollars every year.

As our recent report with Alabama Appleseed shows, the industry profits off financial desperation. Two-week payday loans with annual percentage rates of up to 456% (not a misprint, unfortunately) trap many Alabamians in debt cycles they cannot escape. And Alabama’s lack of consumer protections gives those borrowers no reasonable path out of that debt trap.

There’s a better way. Alabama Arise supports 30 Days to Pay legislation to help the people injured most by these harmful practices. This proposal would give borrowers 30 days to repay payday loans, putting them on a cycle similar to other bills.

This change would make life better for thousands of Alabamians. About one in four Alabama payday borrowers take out more than 12 loans per year. Because the loans are so short in duration – as few as 10 days – these repeat borrowers pay nearly half of all payday loan fees assessed across the state. The 30 Days to Pay plan would give these borrowers a little breathing room to avoid spiraling into deep debt.

We need you with us as we push for common-sense changes to protect borrowers. Please join Arise or renew your membership today to add your voice to our chorus for change. Together, we can build a better Alabama!