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How America is fighting back against predatory lending.

CLEVELAND, MISS. — It was such an easy trap to fall into. All Jennifer Williams needed was an extra $100 to make it to her next paycheck. Back in 2006, she had just started teaching at the local high school and money was tight. The then-24-year-old knew no bank would give her money because of...
Time: 11:05     Date: 13.01.2018
Last US News - Opinion: How America is fighting back against predatory lending. NY Post 24 - US News

All Jennifer Williams needed was an extra $100 to make it to her next paycheck. Back in 2006, she had just started teaching at the local high school and money was tight.

The then-24-year-old knew no bank would give her money because of her spending habits in college. “If there was a textbook for doing everything wrong, well, I did it and messed up my credit,” she explained.

She asked a fellow teacher how she managed to make ends meet and was pointed to one of those bright yellow buildings with a blinking “CASH” sign out front, which gave her the loan she needed.

“I originally borrowed $400. I had to pay an $87-a-month fee to pay it back,” Williams said.

She couldn’t afford the fees. Three years later, she owed nearly $5,000 to nine different payday lenders, at nine different locations, and was totally overwhelmed.

“I kept getting loans from other places because I could never catch up,” she said. “I felt like I was suffocating. Like I had no way out. I was paying this one to pay that one to pay the other one, so I could ultimately make it paycheck to paycheck. That is no way to live.”

In a one-mile stretch in Cleveland, Miss., along US Highway 61 — the famous “blues highway” where dozens of musicians since the 1930s recorded songs about their escape from poverty — there are 18 quick-cash storefronts lining the road.

In fact, over 1,100 storefront payday lenders are located in the state of Mississippi — more than there are McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Starbucks combined.

This is all in a state with some of the highest rates of extreme poverty in the country, a generational stigma dating back to the area’s plantation economy. While the national poverty rate is 15 percent, the counties here along the Mississippi River hover between 30 to 40 percent.

For folks like Williams, a quick-cash store is the only path to take when a crisis strikes. If your hot-water heater breaks, or your car breaks down or you crack a tooth, alternative lending is your only route.

The need for their services is threefold. The poor don’t trust banks and banks don’t trust the poor. Traditional lending institutions are so far away, many people need to cross three counties just to cash a paycheck. And finally online banking is nearly impossible in areas where there is little broadband.

Jennifer WilliamsShelia Bell

Williams finally found her salvation thanks to an ad she saw in the local newspaper for part-time financial classes sponsored by Southern Bancorp, a community bank based in Little Rock, Ark. “I had to do something, and it changed my life,” she said.

“I learned the importance of living within a budget, and I worked on getting my credit healthy. When I finished the course, I was able to get a regular bank loan. I opened a savings account, and I reorganized my debt,” she said.

Darrin Williams, the CEO of Southern Bancorp, calls the Delta region a bank desert. “It is just one more way that people who live in rural America have challenges in their way of getting ahead, that many people who live in more populous areas do not,” he said.

Williams, who is not related to Jennifer, is on a mission to free the rural poor  from succumbing to predatory quick-cash stores by offering community banking that helps them build their net worth.

“You cannot build net worth until you have ownership in something, like buying a home, or a car or a small business. All that starts with your local bank,” he said.

Since 2013, Williams has been at Southern Bancorp, which was initiated by then-Gov. Bill Clinton to jolt the economy in the Arkansas Delta region. Before that he served in various political positions in Washington, DC, and Arkansas where he was a member of the state house of representatives.

A report from the Center for Financial Services Innovation estimated that financially under-served consumers spent approximately $141 billion in fees and interest in 2015 just to enjoy basic services such as borrowing, saving and spending, Williams said. “That’s more than the GDP of Kuwait,” he added.

Darrin Williams’ energy in helping the folks of the Delta is contagious.

“Homeownership, a savings account, a small business, those things chip away from the generational poverty, and it begins with a relationship with the people you see at your neighborhood bank,” he said.

“Every community in the Delta would love to have their own Nissan plant or Amazon distribution center, but it’s not happening. What’s making these communities thrive are those small entrepreneurs that are employing one to five people. That’s our bread and butter. That’s who we’re lending money to,” he said.

But they can’t get those loans if they can’t be met where they live. “The further a person is from a bank or official source of capital and credit, the more the capital and credit costs that person. If we want to make change we have to be change. That’s what I am trying to do.”

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