Four years ago, thousands of Missourians gave their blood, sweat and tears to a grass-roots initiative petition campaign to cap interest rates on predatory payday loans.
These loans charge an average of 450 percent interest in our state — with interest rates as high as 1,950 percent annually — gutting our poorest communities of hundreds of millions of dollars in fees levied every year. In Kansas City alone, payday lending storefronts annually drain $26 million from families.
The volunteer-led movement to “stop the debt trap” was unprecedented in its scale of community engagement and conviction, with more than 1,800 registered circulators gathering signatures in every county of Missouri. Volunteers took to churches and street corners to end the abuse.
Despite doubling the signature requirement for ballot certification, up against a multibillion-dollar industry and its unfathomably dirty tactics (threatening churches, harassing volunteers, breaking into a car to steal signatures), we lost. It was a hard loss, but it proved that organizing works.
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Because in that moment of defeat, regular folks planted their heels in the dirt and kept fighting. The struggle to stop the debt trap continued.
It ensnared regular folks like Shallon, a working mom I know from rural Missouri. She took out a car title loan to afford the gas needed to travel south for a family funeral. The compounding debt was so great, she had to work three jobs to pay it off — seeing her children only when they were sleeping.
It got my friend Kevin, whose hands shook when he told me about the debilitating ulcers that ravaged his body, about the clumps of hair he was losing because of the stress of being caught in the payday debt trap with no end in sight.
Sandra is a single mom struggling against the worst odds. She was swindled by a consumer installment lender the moment she began to get back on her feet. Her case took an investigative reporter and two case managers to free her from 300 percent interest rates that she was paying without her consent.
Last week brought huge news — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a field hearing this Thursday at the Music Hall in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. The agency is expected to release its proposed rules to rein the worst abuses in predatory lending. History’s greatest chance to end the worst elements of the debt trap will be in our backyard.
We could change the lives of hundreds of millions of families across America by making sure the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau champions the strongest rules possible.
Kansas Citians can help. We need to lead the nation and demand that the bureau enact strong regulations that put an end to the worst abuses of predatory lenders and protect the assets of working families. The federal agency must shut down the debt trap by ensuring that there are no loopholes to its basic, common-sense standards.
Lenders must be required to ensure that every loan, regardless of duration or type, be able to be paid back affordably. People need to show up and speak out on Thursday, rallying for common-sense regulations to protect millions of our families from the debt trap.
Check out StopTheDebtTrap.org to find out how. Thursday is a moment for Shallon, Kevin, Sandra, and all the named and unnamed warriors who’ve struggled against this ugly industry for so long to show up and make their voices heard. It’s also a day for the rest of us to show up and support all the regular folks we know.
Molly Fleming of Kansas City is a community organizer leading the PICO National Network's campaign to end predatory payday and coordinating Missouri's grass-roots community organizations in their work to put ordinary people at the center of democracy. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.