By Paul Kiel
As the Rev. Susan McCann stood outside a public library in Springfield, Mo., last year, she did her best to persuade passers-by to sign an initiative to ban high-cost payday loans. But it was difficult to keep her composure, she remembers. A man was shouting in her face.
He and several others had been paid to try to prevent people from signing. “Every time I tried to speak to somebody,” she recalls, “they would scream, ‘Liar! Liar! Liar! Don’t listen to her!’”
Such confrontations, repeated across the state, exposed something that rarely comes into view so vividly: the high-cost lending industry’s ferocious effort to stay legal and stay in business.
Outrage over payday loans, which trap millions of Americans in debt and are the best-known type of high-cost loans, has led to dozens of state laws aimed at stamping out abuses. But the industry has proved extremely resilient. In at least 39 states, lenders offering payday or other loans still charge annual rates of 100 percent or more. Sometimes, rates exceed 1,000 percent.
Last year, activists in Missouri launched a ballot initiative to cap the rate for loans at 36 percent. The story of the ensuing fight illuminates the industry’s tactics, which included lobbying state legislators and contributing lavishly to their campaigns; a vigorous and, opponents charge, underhanded campaign to derail the ballot initiative; and a sophisticated and well-funded outreach effort designed to convince African-Americans to support high-cost lending.