ST. LOUIS - "There are over twice as many payday loan stores in Missouri as there are McDonald's and Starbucks combined," Robin Acree, executive director of GRO-Grassroots Organizing, said as she talked with this reporter outside of the Missouri State Capital last year.
"There is one on damn near every street corner," she continued.
"And the Republican-controlled [state] House and Senate refuse to do anything to reign in these parasites, parasites that prey on Missouri's most vulnerable."
According to the Missouri Division of Finance, in 2010 there were an estimated 1,040 payday loan stores in the Show-Me-State.
Acree's organization, which is based in Mexico, Mo., was founded 12 years ago by a single mom on welfare who said she was tired of being ignored by Missouri politics and politicians. GRO describes itself as the only progressive, direct action, grassroots organization based-in rural Missouri.
Darryl Howard, an African American public sector union member, has filed for bankruptcy due to his payday loan debt. According to him, "Enough is enough!"
Howard works full time at a north St. Louis mental health habilitation center where he feeds and bathes patients, checks their vitals and blood pressure, and performs other duties. Twenty-five percent of his $10 an-hour wages are garnished by payday loan companies, which are allowed to charge exorbitant interest rates.
He is stuck in a cycle of debt, with over $15,000 owed to payday loan companies like Quick Cash, St. Louis Title Loans and Missouri Title Loans.
Howard, understandably, tries to get all the overtime he can. "I'm tired and exhausted, but the overtime is worth it," he said.
Howard's situation isn't that uncommon. Like many low-income workers, as his bills mounted, he borrowed money from one payday loan store to pay the bills, and then borrowed from another payday loan store to pay off the other.
He started receiving harassing phone calls, and found out the hard way that payday loan companies "will do anything to hunt you down," including "show up at work."
"They don't care about the costumer. They care about the money," Howard concluded. "They are gonna make their money, and make sure they make their profits."
Missourians' For Responsible Lending, a statewide coalition, has recently started collecting signatures to place on the November ballot an initiative to cap short-term payday loan interest rates at 36 percent. Current interest rates are capped at 1,950 percent, while the average annual interest rate is 444 percent.
Placing such a bread-and-butter initiative on the November ballot may also help to turn out low-income, working-class voters for President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates in November, observers say.
According to recent poll data, Missouri voters overwhelmingly support capping payday loan interest rates, which is probably why pro-industry front groups have begun funneling money into anti-initiative activities.
Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity has raised $850,000 from the right-wing Kansas City-based Missourians for Responsible Government. Another group, Stand Up Missouri raised almost $200,000 in contributions from companies in Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Oklahoma. Both groups cynically claim to be worried about customers like Howard.
Missourians for Responsible Lending, by contrast, is working on a shoe-string budget and volunteer time. The coalition's support comes primarily from unions, community groups, retirees' organizations and people of faith.
Seventeen states currently cap payday loan interest rates at 36 percent, the federal limit for active duty service men and women.
Nationally, payday loan companies - and other "parasite" industries - are feeling the heat as the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is designed to safeguard borrowers from unscrupulous lenders, recently became fully functional with Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray as its new director.
For the first time in U.S. history, nonbank entities - like payday loan companies - will be subject to oversight to ensure consumer protections.
In fact, the day after Cordray's appointment, the bureau launched its nonbank supervision program, indicating payday lending as a top priority.
Currently, there is an estimated 22,300 payday loan stores nationwide that make $30 billion in loans annually.
Capping interest rates would mean payday loan customers, like Darryl Howard, will have a better chance of getting out of debt and staying out of debt permanently, something we can all support in these tough economic times.
According to Howard, "I'm so done with payday loans. I just want this to be over."