devilStatistics are used to prove points. “9 out of 10 dentists agree,” or “soda drinkers prefer Pepsi 2 to 1 in a blind taste test,” or even “45% of Americans approve of the President.”

But where do these numbers come from, and are they trustworthy at all?

When it comes to data on payday loans and cash advances, the Pew Research Center (sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts) is one of the most quoted, accepted, and respected sources for information. The Pew conducts a large-scale poll on the industry of alternative lending, and their results are often shocking.

According to the Pew data, all payday lenders are predatory. The industry overall traps its users in a “cycle of debt” from which there is no escape. Payday lenders obfuscate the details, tricking unwary borrowers who have no idea what they are getting into.

But now comes a new Harris poll that paints a radically different picture of the industry. In this poll, payday loan users did not feel tricks or preyed upon, and most of them paid off their debt as they expected to, and had no complaints about the process.

Both sets of data can’t be trust, can they? Is the polling data collected by the Pew legitimate, or does it have its own agenda?

Pew vs. Harris

The Pew data states: 14% of borrowers say they can pay off a their payday loan out of their monthly budget. The other 86% cannot.

The Harris data states: 94% of payday borrowers knew exactly how much their loan would cost, and how long it would take to pay off, before taking the loan.

The Pew data states: Borrowers favor increased regulation of payday loans by a 3 to 1 margin.

The Harris data states: 97% of borrowers rate their payday loan experience “as expected” or “better than expected.” 80% of respondents would take out another payday loan if they needed one.

The Pew data states: 78% of payday borrowers rely on information from the lenders themselves about loans. These loans are sold as a safe two-week product.

The Harris data states: 89% of payday borrowers not only weighed all the options before getting a loan, but also crunched the numbers and did the math themselves.

angelThe Pew data makes it sound like the borrowers made a made decision in relying on information from the lenders. The Harris data makes it sounds like the borrowers did their own fact-finding, and compared what the lender said with their own calculations.

Two contradictory sets of data, both asking questions in the same country about the same industry. Which is right? Or are they both wrong?

An Unbiased Poll?

There are standards and regulations for collecting polling data. It’s not enough to simply make phone calls and write down answers; there are formalities to be observed, and rules to be followed. One of the most important rules is that of transparency.

Without the transparency to allow auditors and researchers to see where the polling results came from, the poll lacks validity. Most major polls (like the Harris) have open demographical standards, that reveal where the data came from (without revealing personal information).

But the Pew data is not verifiable; it has no transparency, and therefore no one knows where the data came from, or if it is accurate at all. Recently Brad Hayes, the spokesperson for, had this to say about the Pew:

“In our opinion, there are some serious problems with the method by which organizations such as the Pew Research Center conduct their surveys and more troubling still is the fact that there is an absolute void in the amount of transparency offered to both the media and the American public regarding the demographic information of the individuals within the poll. If we are expected to take these results as being credible and a true barometer of national opinion, we need to know more about the individuals that were surveyed.”

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