Eaten Alive

Rent-to-own stores, pawnshops, payday lenders -- it's hope for sale, with interest

The next breadbasket for fringe lenders may well be the struggling lower-middle class. In 2005, real median household income -- the earnings of people in the middle of the income distribution, adjusted for inflation -- fell for the fifth year in a row. An 11 percent spike in employer health insurance premiums last year has eviscerated many corporate health plans. And the recent fight over pensions for New York City transit workers underscores a looming crisis of vanishing retirement benefits. It's no wonder that payday lenders often run ads featuring cheerful, blue-eyed white women. The industry, Karger says, "represents capitalism with its teeth bared."

Tinita knows that winding her way out of the snake pit of debt will be tough. In an effort to pay her light bill, she and David recently plastered lampposts along FM 1960 with ads for a homegrown business venture, "DT's Touch and Clean" janitorial service. They sat back and waited for the calls to come in. Nothing happened. Then, one night, the phone rang. The caller ID flashed "Lone Star Advantage." A woman named Maureen was asking them to call her over the answering machine.

"That must be a bill collector," David said. They hesitated. Maureen hung up. And they were left to replay the message, to divine the relative threat and promise carried by Maureen's professional, slightly stiff, very white tone of voice, to decide, in the end, if they should risk a call back.

Tinita Samuels Dorsey pawned her ruby-studded high 
school ring for $20.
Daniel Kramer
Tinita Samuels Dorsey pawned her ruby-studded high school ring for $20.
With 1,371 stores in 37 states, Irving-based ACE 
Cash Express dominates the check-cashing industry.
Daniel Kramer
With 1,371 stores in 37 states, Irving-based ACE Cash Express dominates the check-cashing industry.

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