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Easing the price of poverty Legislative efforts are under way, but Senate should act more forcefully

Even in the midst of a four-day series earlier this year by News staffers Rod Watson and Jonathan D. Epstein on "The High Cost of Being Poor," politicians began paying attention to the most egregious injustices forced upon people at the lowest economic levels. That attention is critically important, and it's welcome.

The Buffalo Common Council's recent 8-0 decision on a law that requires all food stores to notify the city if they charge fees to cash checks, for example, is a good step toward monitoring possible check-cashing abuses, and Mayor Byron W. Brown deserves credit for pledging his signature.

Following the summer series, Sen. Charles E. Schumer announced plans to introduce a bill to protect consumers from abuses in the rent-to-own industry which, as he said, charges "excessive interest rates."

Politicians at local, state and federal levels moved quickly to denounce the atrocities being committed against the poor, who can hardly afford high interest charges that often accompany check-cashing, rent-to-own and predatory loans.

Yet efforts on further reforms by the State Legislature appear lopsided. The Assembly is acting forcefully; the Senate is not.

The Assembly held hearings during the summer with the idea of finding the best way to strengthen oversight of check-cashers, rent-to-own stores, short-term lenders and "predatory" mortgage firms.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, state lawmakers and regulators set out on a quest to re-examine New York's 1986 rent-to-own law, which allows the industry to set its own prices; increase the state Banking Department budget to bolster enforcement against stores running illegal check-cashing operations; revisit the predatory lending law enacted by the state three years ago; and determine whether Buffalo can regulate stores that cash checks.

Progress on the latter issue is evident. Cooperation with the other points at the state level requires Senate attention.

Fortunately, Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer has expressed serious interest in the plight of the poor. In his most recent role as state attorney general, he doggedly pursued wrongdoers of the type described in the series. But without legislation passed by both Houses, the new governor would be left with little new with which to work.

Efforts to fight poverty must be engaged by lawmakers at every level. Both the Assembly and Senate must work together to enact and pass legislation that goes to the heart of the expensive inequities that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

On the national level, reports such as the one recently released by the Center for Responsible Lending quantify the huge economic impact of payday loans. Such desperation-driven loans can sink borrowers into debt that can be as difficult to escape as quicksand, as President Michael D. Calhoun said.

The ongoing discussion of nationwide poverty strikes an all-too familiar chord in economically depressed Western New York. Definitive action toward easing practices that deepen poverty in the guise of helping the poor meet life's financial challenges must be pursued. Injustice highlighted should lead to injustice eliminated; change has to be on the way.

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