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Russell Simmons: Don’t be in a rush to judge

Tyler Metzger

Is it wrong to sell the American Dream?

Boyce Watkins and Russell Simmons.
The two protagonists: Boyce Watkins, left, and Russell Simmons.

That question is at the heart of a feud between RushCard founder Russell Simmons and Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University. On April 15, Watkins publicly condemned Simmons on the radio show “The Takeaway” by claiming that Simmons is exploiting the black community with the RushCard.

On the radio show, Watkins, who also runs the activist Web site Your Black World, said Simmons isn’t the humanitarian he claims to be, and even loosely compared him to a pimp.

“[Simmons is] saying I’m giving everyone access to the American Dream, but I never really knew the American Dream consisted of having a piece of plastic that puts people further and further in debt,” Watkins said. “But even a pimp that helps — that quote unquote ‘helps’ — a young woman get off the street, he can say, ‘I helped you because you were homeless when I met you and now you’re not.'”

Watkins went on to criticize the fee structure of the prepaid Visa RushCard, which includes an activation fee of $19.95, a daily convenience fee of $1 (capped at $10 a month), $1.95 ATM cash withdrawal fee and more. He concluded that larger, more powerful institutions need to solve the problems that Simmons is claiming to fix for the underbanked communities, such as lack of access to a bank account. (Disclosure: CreditCards.com offers the RushCard).

“Well it’s sort of like saying if you got a cavity on the left side of your mouth, you should chew with your right,” Watkins said. “Instead, why not actually dig to the root of the issue and deal with the financial literacy problems that exist in the black community. And then at the very least, the Rush Card might still exist, but the fees would be lower and more acceptable.”

Two days after the radio show aired, the New York Times ran a piece about financial innovations aimed at helping the underbanked communities. They weren’t too nice about it, either. The article quoted Watkin’s pimp line and said that Simmons “has apparently been marketing RushCards primarily to low-income African-Americans.” They also used a quote from the show describing the cards as “no-credit-check, prepaid credit cards with $200 credit limits and $50 a year in fees.”

Simmons wasn’t pleased with the publicity and fired back three days later with a response published on the New York Times’ Web site.

“The RushCard is a prepaid card, NOT a credit card. It gives people the convenience of a credit card without the debt,” Simmons said. “I have watched with pride the way RushCard has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people giving them respect and dignity. It gives underserved communities the tools to get their money right.”

The hip-hop entrepreneur went on to defend his card by saying it’s a better alternative than check cashing businesses that the underbanked use because they can charge fees up to 10 percent. His card also offers its users to shop online and rent a car, which “separates them from part of the American Dream that other Americans are free to enjoy,” he said.

But Simmons dodged the critiques of the RushCard’s fee structure.

“I have read that we are somehow trying to take advantage of people by charging high fees,” he said. “It’s a very competitive space and even Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, has followed us with their own prepaid card.”

So where’s the line? Is it alright to exploit people, if only a little, if you believe you’re helping them? Does Simmons need to stop his “philanthropistic,” American Dream efforts with the RushCard and start making larger efforts to help the underbanked? Or is he just like you and me, trying to hustle any way we can?

See related: The real dirt on celebrity credit cards, Prepaid cards glitter in gloomy economy, All about the Baby Phat Prepaid Visa card

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  • Alicia

    Russell has every right to make money onhis pre paid card all banks do as well as the check cashing companies. He states it that it is a benefit becasue so often people have messed up with the banks and dont have access to the card that is needed in todays society. He is black so he is a pimp I guess the banks and Walmart are the drug lords. he promotes to blacks becasue thats were his base is. Blacks are being exploited in so many other ways and him charging is not one of them

  • deborah

    Thank you for being so Informative with this information about the russell card I won’t be the next dummy to order this card, he’s a lier on tv he says its free but when you get ready to order you have fees unenclosed on his tv commercial, Pay attention people hes rich and getting this card will make him that much RICHER, so take this advice its another scam in his favor Not Ours remember the saying if something is to good to be true then Don’t Take It or you’ll pay the price.

  • shasha

    Russell Simmmons credit card is a Joke, theres fees in connection with his cards thats not told on his T.V. commercial he just says its free and if you order now he’ll give you 5.00$ to start off maybe, maybe not but I do know he’ll charge you fees when getting a card so the 5.00$ won’t even be worth it, its just something to try to attract people to order his card and get something for nothing yea right Keep It Don’t Want it……………

  • celso

    Hey just wondering, I have heard that RUSH cards have issued somewhere around 3 million cards. Is this true?

  • Nikki G.

    Russell Simmons rushcard has worked fine for my son and I. It keeps my 18 year old from getting a credit card and ruining his credit. Also, if you keep the card for awhile you do get cash back in case you dont know that.

  • Paul M.

    This rush card is a real joke, not only do they charge so many fee’s but today I had to wait until noon to get my direct deposit money, which made me late on paying for my insulin, my check was deposited yesterday and I had to wait 12 hrs to get it.

  • KS

    Simmons is a thief and a hypocrite. He is exploiting the poor.

  • Pee Wee

    My taxes were deposited on a Rushcard and not only did i have to fax and email my personal information, that they complained was too dark to see, they ended up sending my refund back to the IRS. What the hell? NETSPEND FROM NOW ON!!!!!!

  • T.Savage

    My goodness people. there are free bank accounts out here, please educate yourself. Why pay so many fees when you can bank for nearly free. Besides, why should YOU have to PAY to access YOUR money?…Great an informative article