ADVOCATES CALL CAR INSURANCE STANDARDS IN NJ DISCRIMINATORY
Record (Hackensack, NJ)
By the time Cuqui Rivera had to renew her car insurance policy in December 2019, the longtime activist had only heard about some of the reasons she -- a Hispanic female with a high school diploma -- may pay more than her white, college-educated neighbors.
So, Rivera decided, "let me be your guinea pig," she said. "Let's see if this is true."
She looked on the website of Liberty Mutual, the company she had been with for at least two decades, to see if it said anything about factoring education, work history and credit score into insurance rates. She said she found nothing.
Her annual policy with Liberty Mutual cost $2,997, Rivera said. She went to CURE, the West Windsor-based insurance company, and said she found the same policy for $1,188, a 60% savings.
That's because CURE is the only insurance company that doesn't factor in education, employment and credit score when determining a driver's rate, according to the advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action.
The result of using these "income proxies" in rate-setting is a racial and class disparity that Rivera and other advocates say amounts to widespread discrimination in New Jersey -- disparities that the insurance industry does not deny but insists are incidental to societal realities beyond their control.
Advocates have pressed lawmakers, as they have for more than a decade, to change the law so companies can no longer use those factors and others, such as marital status and whether a driver owns a home, to determine insurance rates.
But their mission has been unsuccessful. A bill that would exclude those factors from insurance rate-setting narrowly cleared the Senate, but was not posted in the Assembly on the last day of the legislative session last week, meaning it must start the process over again.
That means drivers in mostly Black neighborhoods in cities like Paterson, heavily Latino areas like Camden and low-income towns like Lakewood will likely continue paying higher rates for car insurance than people who live nearby in mostly white, higher-income communities such as Ridgewood, Cherry Hill and Brick.
On average statewide, drivers who live in majority Black and Latino ZIP codes pay nearly 50% higher premiums than those in majority-white ZIP codes, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Drivers in mostly low-income ZIP codes pay nearly 52% higher premiums, on average, than those in high-income areas, the federation said.
"There is a disproportionate penalty levied on African Americans and Latinos," said Douglas Heller, an insurance expert with the consumer federation.
"Every day that is delayed" passing the insurance legislation, he said, "New Jersey residents with perfectly good driving records are paying too much for insurance because policymakers are afraid to stare down insurance companies."
Representatives for insurance lobbying groups in New Jersey did not respond to interview requests, but in testimony on the bill last year they denied discrimination in rate-setting.
Rates vary by race throughout NJ
Rates can vary by hundreds of dollars within one small area. Take a 4-mile stretch of mostly white towns in the Meadowlands, for example.
According to the data, the average annual rate in Carlstadt is $1,822. It's $1,707 next door in Rutherford. And in the next town over, Lyndhurst, it's $1,688.
But racial disparities are clear through New Jersey, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of the data, which was collected in 2020 by the insurance data company Quadrant Information Services and provided by the federation.
All but one of the top 25 ZIP codes with the lowest average annual insurance premiums -- about $1,071 -- were mostly white, affluent suburbs concentrated in Hunterdon, Morris and Somerset counties, according to the analysis. The one ZIP code that was majority Black represented a population of 258 people across half a square mile in Bernards Township, a Somerset County town that is 68% white, according to U.S. census data.
The 25 ZIP codes with the highest average premiums -- about $2,250 -- were in mostly Black, low-income cities in North Jersey, including: Elizabeth, Fairview, Irvington, Newark, North Bergen, Passaic and Paterson.
Rivera, a high school graduate who said she has a flawless driving record and excellent credit, is half Puerto Rican and lives in North Brunswick. The average annual rate there is $1,632, according to the data.
North Brunswick is a diverse community: 35% white; 25% Asian; 20% Black; 19% Hispanic; and its median household income of $96,546 is 20% higher than the statewide median of $85,751, according to Census Reporter, an independent website that centralizes and analyzes U.S. census data.
But if Rivera lived 6 miles west in Franklin Township, in Somerset County, she might pay less for car insurance. The average there was $1,537, nearly $100 less than in North Brunswick, the consumer federation's data showed.
Rivera has an added disadvantage, though: She's female. Women paid on average nearly $100 more per year for car insurance than men, according to the data analysis.
"I'm being discriminated against," said Rivera, who works with several advocacy groups and is a manager at the Puerto Rican Action Board and projects coordinator at the Latino Action Network, both in New Brunswick.
Broader factors, such as population and density, also drive up premiums in the densely-packed North Jersey cities where residents pay the most for car insurance. But individual factors such as education and credit score mean two people living in the same town with similar driving records may pay different rates.
Take Jonathan Forges. The 32-year-old Port Authority security guard, who emigrated from Haiti four years ago, said he has no points on his driver's license and has taken defensive driving courses to save money on car insurance.
Still, the $3,500 a year he pays for two cars is higher than the average paid by men in his age group in Montclair, where he lives. The average annual rate in the mostly white, upscale suburb in Essex County is $1,425 for a 35-year-old single male, according to the federation's data. It's far lower for that same demographic with an excellent driving record: $842.
"We're trying to do everything possible to lower this, and to find out all this information it's, like, wow. Things are already stacked against us," Forges said.
Insurance formulas deemed 'valid'
The insurance industry, which lobbied heavily against the bill, insists that setting rates is a sophisticated and scientific discipline blessed by the state's oversight agency, the Department of Banking and Insurance.
That agency said in a 2008 report that insurance companies use more than a dozen factors to determine insurance rates, but race and income data are not collected by insurers.
Using education and occupation data, the agency said, was "actuarially valid." Citing loss data from the insurer GEICO, the department said drivers with bachelor's and master's degrees were "less risky" than the general population. Black and Latino drivers were less likely to hold college degrees and "professional" jobs, the report said, but it noted that "such groups are not singled out."
The department also said car accidents were more common in urban centers, which have higher-than-average populations of racial minorities and low-income residents who don't typically hold college degrees or professional jobs.
And credit-based insurance scores -- different from typical credit scores -- are predictive of claims and likely "to make the price of insurance better match the risk of loss posed by the consumer," according to a 2007 study by the Federal Trade Commission.
The commission acknowledged that Blacks and Hispanics are "substantially overrepresented among consumers with the lowest scores" and that likely has an effect on what those groups pay on average for insurance. But, like the state insurance agency, the trade commission said using credit scores has "little effect" as a "proxy" for race in insurance rates.
And credit scores are used along with many other components to determine rates, said Christopher Stark, who was an executive with the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies when he testified against the bill in 2020.
"It's not like they just cease to look at the rest of the factors. It is in the insurer's best interest -- we take it as our responsibility -- to make sure that we are matching risk to rate for the motoring public because that's what's fair to everybody," Stark said.