Against the New Scarlet Letter

Over at The Plum Line yesterday, our own Ryan Cooper was a bit underwhelmed by some new legislation introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

Today, Elizabeth Warren is introducing a bill to ban the use of credit scores during the hiring process. While this is a fairly small-bore reform, it is probably still worth doing.

But the fact that these are the reforms that most liberal Senators are driven to is striking in and of itself. It’s yet another reminder that Washington has basically given up on trying to deal with the major consequences of the Great Recession.

I have to say I disagree. The use of credit scores in hiring decisions gets to the heart of a really dangerous (and politically vulnerable) assumption about economic success and failure that Republicans tend to have, now more than ever: that failure is a sign of a moral weakness that government must not ignore or accidentally reward.

It’s the new Scarlet Letter, and it’s being used as a screen in all sorts of processes providing access to a normal life, including rental housing. It’s a particularly cruel and inappropriate litmus test immediately after a recession in which one of the few things everyone agreed about was that millions of people were victimized by an out-of-control consumer credit industry. And yes, it makes sense that someone like Elizabeth Warren would draw attention to this abuse of power whether or not she was in a position to make more direct efforts to rekindle growth and reduce unemployment.

Ryan’s right that use of credit scores is just one of many bullying tactics employers tend to deploy when they can afford to be picky about who it is they hire. But the ultimate challenge is that this rich country can’t seem to fully commit itself to full-employment policies, and thus is vulnerable to practices that define the unemployed as unworthy of success, much less help. Getting at that moral argument for a reactionary economic system is right in Elizabeth Warren’s wheelhouse.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.