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The CFPB and the Religious Community

Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau implementation team will hold a roundtable at the White House with key leaders from the religious community.

At the new consumer bureau, we spend a lot of time listening. We know that when Americans feel overwhelmed by financial problems, many of them turn to their ministers or other spiritual leaders for support. These leaders witness—up close and personal—the devastation that a financial crisis leaves in its wake. We are particularly interested in hearing from these community leaders about what they are seeing on the ground—what financial issues their congregations are confronting and what people of faith are doing to help.

We also know that religious leaders across the country are wrestling with the moral dimensions of the financial crisis of 2008. The crisis revealed how the financial system permitted lenders to hide the true costs and risks of mortgages and to steer those who trusted them into products they did not understand. While some people profited from this business model, across the country, millions more suffered through foreclosures, crippling debt, or bankruptcy. Personal gain for a few came at the expense of all, as risky and complicated mortgage products brought the entire economy to its knees.

My many conversations with community banks have also reminded me that many lenders offered their products in a fair and transparent manner, only to find themselves in competition with other lenders that were willing to misrepresent the price or hide risks, all in an effort to boost their own profits or market share.

Nor were the problems confined to lenders. The system also permitted some borrowers to take risks that not only hurt themselves, but also hurt their neighbors by driving the value of property higher and then pushing it off a cliff when those borrowers defaulted on their loans. Recklessness hurt us all.

Ultimately, the financial crisis harmed both our pockets and our principles. The moral dimensions of the crisis run deep. No one should forget that, for many centuries, consumer protection laws have been deeply rooted in religious and moral traditions. The laws have changed, but the basic notion that lending should not be used as an instrument of advantage-taking is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness.

Many people of faith and conscience fought diligently for the consumer bureau because they saw that the attitudes and practices that caused the financial crisis did not reflect our common values. Enacting the new CFPB was a David-versus-Goliath fight, but, in the end, American families triumphed.

With this new consumer bureau, we have an opportunity to provide a direct line of support to American families. We will start by working to ensure that consumers get the information they need to make the financial decisions they believe are best for themselves and their families—that prices are clear up front, that risks are visible, and that important terms are not buried in fine print.

By requiring increased transparency, the new consumer bureau can add both to the economic security of American families and to the overall strength of our economy. It can also provide a level playing field in which all lenders will be required to follow the rules. But we know that without values, our rules will be hollow. That is why the success of this moment also depends upon individuals exercising their responsibility toward one another and acting in a way that reaffirms our common values and shared humanity.

Here at the consumer bureau, we understand that economic security is not just about numbers on a balance sheet; it is about families trying to care for themselves and others, to secure all they hold dear. It needs to be valued as such. I’m looking forward to today’s conversation.

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