Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, life insurance companies in America would sell different policies to Black people, giving them higher rates and worse benefits than whites. The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned the practice of using race. Sadly, however, at that point life insurance companies began using a person’s education level and occupation as a proxy substitute.
Since car insurance reform in 2004, New Jersey companies have used factors such as education and occupation in setting car insurance rates. Unbeknownst to most New Jersey residents is the truth behind the dirty secret of insurers charging more to drivers who have only a high school degree, or hold a “blue-collar job” or “not so perfect” credit score regardless of their spotless driving record. These car insurance companies, who for years have forced millions of safe New Jersey drivers to pay up to 40% more than homeowners with a college degree, have been a focus of the New Jersey Senate, which passed a bill in January to ban this practice, which harms lower-income and minority communities.
Unfortunately, despite numerous calls to address this insidiously discriminatory public policy, few are acting. We are looking for our key Democratic leaders to hear the pleas of those who listened when they needed our support. As we near the end of a dead-end road, there are only two ways to turn. We ask to choose “right.”
It is worth repeating that in a state that mandates all drivers must carry car insurance, the need to ensure fairness should be at the forefront of legislation. The notion that any car insurance company should be able to charge more to those in a worse financial position simply because they are less profitable is clearly wrong.
By basing rates on “income proxies,” such as occupation, educational attainment, credit score, and home ownership, the car insurance industry has created an unjust class system, rewarding high-income drivers with the best rates and penalizing those who have lower socioeconomic status with significantly higher rates despite how well they drive. Why? Simply put: Wealthier people typically have other assets like homes, RVs, and boats, so they buy more coverage, which means they also tend to produce the highest profits for insurance companies. The next time you hear the word bundle in a car insurance ad, realize this: Lower-income people often have nothing to bundle.
Case in point: Under this discriminatory practice, a person with a medical degree and DUI conviction on his or her record actually pays less than a restaurant worker with a high school diploma and crystal-clear driving record.
Preexisting and systemic racial inequalities in education, occupation, and economic attainment ensure that the state’s Black drivers are likely to pay more for, or worse yet, be unable to afford, car insurance. Yet without insurance, you can’t “legally” drive to work, further limiting opportunities and perpetuating a cycle of oppression. The impact of these biased rate-setting practices on communities of color was illustrated by Consumer Reports finding that “your education and job could mean you’re paying too much for car insurance.”
Our organizations represent thousands of people in minority communities throughout New Jersey, who played a huge role in electing Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. Yet, today four years later, these individuals we represent remain waiting and grow even more tired of failed promises to dismantle this building block of the systemic discrimination embedded in so many aspects of society.
It has been nearly eight months since the FAIR Act (Bill S-111) was passed by the Senate, yet its companion bill (A-1657) sits and sits in the Assembly, awaiting a vote to be released from the Financial Institutional and Insurance Committee. New Jersey is poised to join a growing number of states, such as New York and Michigan, in prohibiting these unfair and pervasive practices. Let’s use the lame-duck session to champion something that really matters. It is time to prohibit New Jersey car insurance companies from using residents’ education, occupation, marital status, home ownership, and credit score in determining premiums.
The New Jersey Democratic Leadership can seize the opportunity to make a meaningful impact by correcting this gross inequity and create a fairer, more equal car insurance marketplace for all — by supporting the FAIR Act.
John Harmon Sr. is president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and Richard T. Smith is a member of the NAACP national board of directors and president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.