Stacey Brohard works at the Macon County Assistance Exchange, called the MAX Program, where he sees people hoping for financial assistance.
“They need to show financial responsibility and then some plans for recovery,” Brohard told me. “There’s a committee where I take these requests every Friday. My purpose is to be their advocate in front of the committee.”
Stacey’s small office near the sanctuary of Decatur’s First United Methodist Church has room enough for his desk and a couple of seats for people to speak with him. He’s one operative in a faith-based organization that continues the hard work of helping those most in need as government at all levels continues to shrink.
A lot of feet need washing: The week I spoke with him, Brohard had already taken 22 applications from people seeking aid.
“One application, who I just got off the phone with, has three (payday loans),” he said. “He’s paying back a total monthly payment of $365 to those three notes, and he’s not been employed since March.”
I had little success locating people willing to speak about their payday loan situation, and all of those breakthroughs made it into my stories. The man Brohard referenced said he didn’t want to speak on the matter because it was “working for him.” Brohard couldn’t disclose any other details about the guy, but he gave me a good overview of the people he often sees: Roughly, the high end of the household incomes of the applications on his desk was something like $9,000 annually.
“I see some people using (payday loans) to stay afloat, but then I also see some people standing right on the top of that slippery slope, and it is what takes them down,” Brohard said.
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One of the oft-repeated things I heard just before an interview prospect would shut down was “Nobody was trying to trick me,” or “I know what I got myself into,” or “I can’t get a loan anywhere else.” Industry advocates say some variation on the same thing: This isn’t predatory, because we’re all adults here, and this is a necessary service in the community.
Brohard mostly agrees with at least part of that, though he stresses for fairness’ sake, such loans should be capped at a reasonable rate.
“I can’t say wholeheartedly do away with (payday lending), because you have to have an alternative in place,” he said. “These folks that are taking them are falling in a desperate place in their life, and the alternative might be that they’ll just go out and take the stuff that they need, and then you’re seeing shoplifting.”
What is never discussed, though, is why major banks like US Bank, Bank of America, JP Morgan and so on and so on are willing to pump capital into these sorts of payday lenders when they aren’t willing to offer something comparable within their own institutions. It’s hard to shake the perception banks are withholding a potentially less damaging form of service so they can indirectly profit from a far more lucrative one.
The speed-dating nature of such loans reinforces the accusations of local activists that payday and car title lenders are “predatory.” These places aren’t interested in you if you’re just there to window shop, as I found out, but if you’ve already committed they are happy to approve you almost instantly.
“The applications I look at, we’re talking about vulnerable people who have fallen on difficult times in their life,” Brohard said. “When you don’t have a cap (to such loans), and someone is paying 100 percent on this loan, to me that defines ‘predatory.’ (Lenders) might not be out looking for people like that to loan money to, but they’re taking advantage of a situation.”