The almighty credit score: It tracks the past, predicts the future, and maintains existing hierarchies.
By Kirsten Wysen
This is the 7th in a series of EQUITY BLOGS that explores the contexts of longstanding disparities in the health and well-being of King County residents. In addition to helping us understand the root causes of some disparities, the blogs show how tightly history is woven into our lives and our futures. They also acknowledge the rich variability of responses within and across groups and generations, from strength and resilience to lasting harm embedded in policy and everyday life.
“… the median value of all financial assets among white households in the United States ($51,500) is more than 17 times that of Latinx households ($3,000), and nearly 13 times that of Black households ($4,000).”
In our increasingly cash-less economy, a person’s ability to borrow money can depend on a single number. The numeric rating scale known as the credit score is used to establish eligibility for and govern the terms of personal loans, mortgages, car loans, and credit cards. Widespread application of this tool helps maintain existing hierarchies in Americans’ access to basic human needs like housing, food, clothing, jobs, education, transportation, and health.
History of the credit score
In the 1890s, a Chattanooga, Tennessee grocery store used customers’ history of credit repayment to categorize them as “slow,” “prompt,” or “requires cash.” The proprietor, Cator Woolford, sold his list of customer ratings to other local grocery stores and realized he had discovered a new line of business. In 1898, he and his brother founded the Atlanta-based Retail Credit Company, which sold a “Merchant’s Guide” of customer ratings to businesses in the area.
By the 1950s, more than 1,000 credit agencies were scouring newspapers for notices of arrests, promotions, race, religion, sexual orientation, marriages, and deaths – information they copied onto millions of index cards as they built individual credit files. These practices raised concerns about privacy and fairness, and eventually led to passage of the 1970 Fair Credit Report Act, which prohibited the collection and reporting of data on race, sexual orientation, and disability. The 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act went further, banning lender discrimination based on race, gender, marital status, or age. Over several decades, the Fair Isaac Company (FICO) developed a method of standardizing credit risk data and in 1989 they introduced the FICO score, which is now used by 90% of lenders.
Figure 1. Credit scores shape access to basic needs that contribute to health and well-being
How are credit scores calculated?
Credit scores range from 300 to 850 and are primarily assigned by three national credit rating agencies. These for-profit organizations (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) have never shared the actual formulas used to calculate credit scores. They have offered a generic description, however, explaining that the score is derived from a person’s history of past loan and credit card payments (35%), amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), mix of different kinds of credit (10%), and requests for new credit (10%).
While outright discrimination is illegal, the credit score formula works to maintain racial and ethnic group inequities. For example, until 2010 the basic FICO formula counted mortgage payments but generally not rental payments. Whites are almost twice as likely as Blacks to own homes (and make mortgage payments), in part due to decades of federal mortgage and housing policies that explicitly made it difficult for people of color to buy homes. Although rental payments can now be reported to credit rating agencies, doing so usually incurs a fee: in practice, less than 1% of credit files contain rental payment data. In an analysis of data for more than 200 cities, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported that contemporary disparities in home ownership, home values, and credit scores echo disparities in redlined maps from the 1930s.
What if you don’t have a credit score?
Credit scores play an important but often invisible role in the lives of all American adults, especially those without a score. Figure 2 shows the distribution of American adults at different credit-score levels. Notably, about 1 in 5 adults (45 million individuals) have no score at all.
Figure 2. Distribution of adults by credit score and with no credit score, US, 2010
People without a credit score are unlikely to qualify for a credit card, let alone a mortgage or low-interest car loan. For the millions of Americans with no credit scores, options for borrowing money are limited. While some rely on friends and relatives, others turn to payday loans – short-term, high-interest loans that are typically due on the borrower’s next payday. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “a typical 2-week payday loan with a $15 per $100 fee equates to an annual percentage rate of almost 400%.”
Lenders selling predatory loans have historically targeted Blacks and Latinos, and stores selling predatory payday loans are most likely to locate in low-income neighborhoods. Compared to whites, Black adults are 3 times more likely (and Latinos 50% more likely) to use payday loans. These risky loans have higher delinquency and default rates which in turn lower credit scores disproportionately for people of color.
Being without a credit scores can also affect car insurance rates, access to cell phone contracts, approval for renting a house or apartment, and ability to rent a car or establish utility service without a security deposit.
Who has no credit score?
By race/ethnicity. While 16% of white adults have no credit score, the rate is almost twice as high (28%) among both Black and Hispanic adults. Not surprisingly, these differences are roughly mirrored in credit card disparities, with 32% of Blacks and 28% of Hispanic adults reporting they have no credit card, versus 15% of whites.
By place. Almost half (45%) of the residents of low-income neighborhoods lack credit scores versus 9% of those in upper-income neighborhoods. Neighborhood income matters less in rural areas, where credit invisibility is relatively high in all income groups: upper-income rural residents are at least as likely as lower-income urban and suburban residents to have no credit score. In the Puget Sound region, 17% of adults (466,000 of 2.8 million in King and Pierce County) lack credit scores.
The collective impact of credit scores on community health
Wealth, income, and health are tightly entwined, and credit scores often mediate access to basic needs such as housing and owning a car.
Intentionally or not, our society’s heavy reliance on credit scores reinforces existing biases and compounds the predicted risks of lending to people of color and those without a credit history. An upcoming post describes alternative approaches to making lending decisions and allocating resources for basic needs.
Kirsten Wysen has worked in health policy and planning at Public Health – Seattle & King County for 19 years, and was a 2018-2019 Policy Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
Wealth Gap Widens. Communities Count blog about federal and federally sanctioned policies that protect the economic interests of white Americans and restrict access to wealth for people of color. August 22, 2016.
Why 50-Year-Old Housing Practices Could Be Linked to Poor Health Outcomes Today. Public Health Insider blog, July 21, 2016.
Warren Pope: Blood Lines, Time Lines, Red Lines. An exhibit about Seattle’s history of discriminatory housing policies, Northwest African American Museum, May 31, 2019 to September 8, 2019.
La La Land on Economic Equality. Communities Count blog about mismatch between perceptions and reality of economic equality. September 30, 2017.