Early Tuesday in a church basement as rain fell outside, Elliott Clark, 65, sacked groceries for needy families and talked about people thinking he’s dumb.
“Oh, I’ve been called stupid, and they say I should have read the fine print,” Clark said. “But they’ve not walked in my shoes. What choice did I have? I needed money.”
The Kansas City man’s story goes back to 2003 when his wife fell and broke her ankle. She couldn’t work. His security guard job couldn’t keep up with bills. So he did what many have done — borrowed money from payday loan businesses.
Over the next five years, those five short-term loans of $500 each would cost him more than $50,000 in interest.
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“I had nowhere else to go,” said Clark. “I had a family, a daughter in college, bills to pay. … I’m an honest man.”
“Those places shouldn’t be allowed to do that. It’s just glorified loansharking.”
Clark, who dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Marines and fought in Vietnam, will tell his story Thursday at the Moral Economy Summit at Rockhurst University.
The event, sponsored by Communities Creating Opportunities, will discuss predatory lending along with full employment, fair credit and America’s growing gap between rich and poor.
The summit comes just weeks after authorities charged a Leawood man in a federal crackdown on payday lenders who prey on poor people by charging interest rates that sometimes exceed 700 percent. Scott Tucker, who also is a race car driver, has denied the charges.
Eric Liu, a writer, professor and former member of the Clinton administration, will deliver the summit’s keynote address. He said Clark’s experience with payday loans is a reminder that the economy is rigged to serve the few.
“Everyday Americans get a raw deal,” said Liu, who is the founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute. “People not only feel squeezed by the economy, but also swindled.”
That sense of being disenfranchised has helped lead to large followings for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Liu said, and also to movements like the tea party, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.
Critics say that governments at the federal and state levels are also to blame for allowing the payday practice to continue.
The summit is Wednesday evening and Thursday at Rockhurst University. Tickets are $15. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Communities Creating Opportunities spokesman Micah Chrisman said Mayor Sly James will be recognized for Kansas City’s parental leave policy.
“That’s a good example of a moral economy,” Chrisman said.
Of Clark, Chrisman said: “His story is so powerful about what can happen with low-income folks and usury lending.”
Clark told that story Tuesday as he worked as a volunteer in the food pantry at St. Therese Little Flower parish in the 5800 block of Euclid Avenue.
The only part he pulled back was Vietnam, where he served as a squad leader. There was a time, he said, when he would awaken from deep sleep yelling in Vietnamese. Counseling has helped his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I would like to gloss over that if we could,” he said.
But of his time in the Marine Corps, he said, he served for “eight years, six months and 19 days — and proud of every bit of it.”
After his wife’s injury and medical bills rose to $22,000, Clark couldn’t get a bank loan with a 610 credit score. The loans he eventually received from payday businesses quickly became a juggling act.
With payments due every two weeks, he would repay one $500 note along with $95 in interest. At the same time, he often would then take out another $500 loan and go to the next place and do the same until all five were paid.
He would be out the $475 in interest. And he’d also face the new loans coming due. That pattern went on for five years until he received disability payments from Veterans Affairs and Social Security. Those amounts allowed him to finally repay the whole debt.
“And I sure haven’t been back to those places,” he said.
He and Aquila lost their home during that period. Today, married 32 years, they rent a house.
Things are better these days because poor people have more options when it comes to borrowing small amounts of money, he said. But still, he said, about four in 10 people who come into the food pantry can tell a sad story about payday loans.
Now, this avid Chiefs fan is fixing to tell his to the summit. He’s not exactly looking forward to that.
“I get nervous talking in front of people,” he said. “But something has to be done. I’ve got no problem with businesses making a profit, but don’t take advantage of someone on their last legs.
“We are our brother’s keeper. We are all family.”