Today, nearly 300,000 American men and women are serving overseas, often in harsh conditions and at grave risk. For many of these brave men and women, the challenge of everyday life experienced by their families back home is a significant worry, as loved ones struggle with car payments, credit card bills, and trying to find the cash needed to cover unexpected expenses.
Regrettably, the evidence is clear: servicemembers and their families are sometimes easy targets for unscrupulous lenders. Even families that stay with mainstream lenders can struggle as the impact of separation and frequent moving takes a financial toll, leaving a family mired in debt and trying to digest reams of fine print.
Today, we have good news to report.
Holly Petraeus will take on a new role at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Implementation Team, directing our effort to establish an Office of Servicemember Affairs.
I had been at the consumer agency for only a couple of weeks when I met Holly. After we introduced ourselves, she got straight to the point: despite strong efforts by the Department of Defense and others, too many military families find themselves in financial trouble, scrambling hard to deal with mounting debts or falling into the arms of a predatory lender.
Holly was then serving as the Director of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Military Line, a partnership between the BBB and the Department of Defense Financial Readiness Campaign that provides consumer education and advocacy for servicemembers and their families. She knew the challenges facing military families. Her son, brother, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all served in our armed forces. Her husband, General David Petraeus, is serving now as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.
Holly was doing her best to help by teaching financial education classes to military personnel and in other ways, but she thought that as a country we needed to do more—and she thought the new consumer agency was the way to get things done. She listed one idea after another, focusing on better law enforcement, tighter rules, and stronger financial education. She wanted to see action now.
Wow, I thought. This woman is fired up.
It soon became clear that Holly would be the perfect person to guide the establishment of the office. She is the kind of leader we need.
Holly understands—from both her personal experience as a military spouse and her work at BBB—that men and women in our armed forces encounter unique financial obstacles.
Recently-enlisted servicemembers often experience their first steady paycheck and their first opportunity to be lured into easy credit offers. Far too many also get tangled in debt traps. A recent online survey commissioned by the FINRA Foundation found that almost one in four of the enlisted personnel or junior NCO respondents had used a high-cost alternative borrowing method, such as a payday or auto title loan, in the previous five years. The same survey found that mainstream credit products can also pose problems: in the previous year, 53 percent of the enlisted personnel and junior NCOs had made only the minimum payment on a credit card, and 30 percent had made a late payment.
Financial problems can be a dangerous distraction for our troops. As Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford L. Stanley wrote last year, servicemembers “and their families are under increasing stress. When we have asked in surveys about the causes, servicemembers responded that finances were second only behind work and career concerns and ahead of deployments, health, life events, family relationships and war/hostilities.” Financial problems can also lead troops to lose their often essential security clearances. For example, the Department of the Navy reported in 2007 that financial management issues accounted for 78 percent of security clearance revocations and denials for Navy personnel.
Those who serve in the military should be able to focus on their jobs and their families without having to worry about getting trapped by abusive financial practices. America’s national security depends on that basic premise. As Undersecretary Stanley wrote, the “personal financial readiness of our troops and families equates to mission readiness.” Secretary of the Army John McHugh similarly has argued that “Soldiers who are distracted by financial issues at home are not fully focused on fighting the enemy, thereby decreasing mission readiness.”
In her role at the new agency, Holly will continue her work to strengthen consumer financial protection for servicemembers. The Office of Servicemember Affairs will work in partnership with the Department of Defense to help ensure that: military families receive the financial education they need to make the best financial decisions for them; complaints and questions from military families are monitored and responded to; and federal and state agencies coordinate their activities to improve consumer protection measures for military families.
This month, Holly and I will visit Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, where all three of my brothers took basic training. We will hear from servicemembers and financial counselors about the unique lending circumstances and challenges facing military communities. In this and in our later trips, we will ask many questions, listen to our troops, and apply what we learn directly to our efforts.
The goal of the new agency is to provide basic consumer protection and to be a voice for American families. Military families have unique challenges, and now they have a unique advocate to ensure that their special concerns get the attention they deserve.
Elizabeth Warren is Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau