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Tyler Perry Talks New Documentary, Why It's 'Expensive to Be Poor'

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Tyler Perry

Last week, the documentary, Spent: Looking for Change, took the veil off some startlingly personal finance statistics with an unlikely narrator: Tyler Perry.

In the doc, four hardworking families represent nearly 70 million Americans who rely on alternative banking services—check cashing/money order centers, payday lenders, pawn shops--for basic banking services. These are people crippled by professional and family setbacks, which often turn into limited financial options that easily spiral out of control.

Today, Perry's often acknowledged for his wealth, but years ago, he was relying on these same services to stay afloat financially. "I cashed all my checks at the quick cash and I was always upset about how much it cost to cash the check," remembers Perry. "I had to do a lot of wiring. My mother was always pissed at how much it would cost, the check wouldn’t be but $20 and it would cost her $15." Perry no longer has money problems, but his struggle left a desire to educate who do. Here, Perry shares why he hopes the doc—which is under 40 minutes and available online for free at SpentMovie.com (it's sponsored by American Express)—will motivate those who need to hear it the most.

ESSENCE: On The Today Show, when you were speaking about the documentary Spent: Looking for Change, it was interesting when you said: "It’s very expensive to be poor." Can you explain that?

TYLER PERRY: Eighty-nine billion dollars is spent in these services. When you’re poor, you can’t just go to a bank if you don’t have the credit to open up a bank account. You have to rely on these services. If you go to a check cashing service, you have to pay for that. If you use one of these pre-paid cards, you have to pay for that instead of having a regular credit card. So it’s very expensive to be poor. 

ESSENCE: Between your television shows, plays and movies, you’re quite busy. Why did you say yes to narrate this project? 

PERRY: I applaud American Express for doing this because the truth is that nobody knows. When I put this on my Facebook page, everybody was saying, “Oh people just need to stop living above their means.” But people aren’t living above their means; they’re living by any means necessary. These are hardworking people who are not trying to take welfare and who are not trying to be in social systems, they are trying to work. This woman in the documentary, Tiffany, she's a single mother, she's a nurse, she has all these different degrees and then her mom gets cancer. Sometimes things just happen and it’s difficult to move through. So that’s why I wanted to be apart of it and show all of America that 99% of the time people aren’t making these choices, these choices are being made for them.

ESSENCE: Was the decision to make the movie free and available online so that more people would watch?

PERRY: Yes, absolutely. It’s about educating the people. If you don’t know, how can you? How can you learn if nobody teaches you? I was shocked to find out some of those things. I didn’t know what average people are supposed to spend on groceries, most people who are outside of the system are spending that just to cash their checks or pay their loans. And the people who are most effected are Black and Latin. 

ESSENCE: On the film's site, the producers say they hope the doc will spark a movement. Why? 

PERRY: You know what I’m hoping, especially for young people, I’m hoping parents will show this to their children. Once children understand how this works then maybe they will avoid them, they will stay away from it. So for me, the movement would be finding a way…and I’m not trying to do commercial for American Express here… but there are different companies that helping people not be in these situations. For example, there is a company in San Francisco that allows people to put their monies together to loan each other money as opposed to being in these services. There’s a company in Atlanta or San Francisco doing a credit score based on your rent and how you pay your rent or how you pay your bills. So that’s what I mean by a movement, all of those things happening to help people build credit so they don’t have to be outside of the system.

PHOTO GALLERY: ESSENCE's Black Men in Hollywood Dinner Portraits

  • Tyler Perry poses for a portrait at the 2014 ESSENCE Black Men In Hollywood Dinner at Tyler Perry's residence in Beverly Hills.
  • Sidney Poitier poses for a portrait at the 2014 ESSENCE Black Men In Hollywood Dinner at Tyler Perry's residence in Beverly Hills.
  • Tracy Ellis Ross poses for a portrait at the 2014 ESSENCE Black Men In Hollywood Dinner at Tyler Perry's residence in Beverly Hills.
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