Gary Rivlin's Broke, USA tells the story of the birth, growth, and flourishing of fringe lending, the business of extending credit to the working poor. Beginning in the 1980s, and accelerating in the 1990s and 2000s, fringe lenders sprung up in gas stations and pawnshops across America, and by loaning small sums at high interest rates, ultimately created a multi-billion dollar consort to CitiBank, Bank of America, and other major financial institutions. While payday outlets, rent-to-own shops, and check cashers are now fixtures of the urban landscape, this was not always so. Through interviews with the entrepreneurs behind one of the fastest growing industries of the last twenty years, Rivlin gives readers a terrifying glimpse into the origins of what Rivlin dubs "Poverty, Inc." Rivlin is particularly fascinated by the de facto villain of the book, Allan Jones, the father of the payday loan industry. He also introduces us to the people who made fringe lending a success, namely, the working poor, many of whom become ensnared in loans whose terms are outrageously unfavorable. Their stories read like parables of financial mismanagement. Lillie Mae Starr, a retired factory worker, is sold a home loan with a 23.3% interest rate and comes to owe $63,000 on an initial loan of $5,000. David, a retired General Motors worker, spends almost all of his modest pension juggling payday loans from seven different stores. In these and other cases, the consumers of fringe lending - often elderly, frequently minority, always poor - sign up for loans it is difficult to imagine a reasonable person (or, at least, a person who is not extremely desperate) agreeing to. Rivlin's book leaves one with more questions than answers: why, the reader wonders, do people agree to such a short-term loan with a 3910% annual percentage rate ("APR")? How will people who cannot live without a payday advance or a tax refund today be able to return these loans on top of shocking amounts of interest tomorrow? And perhaps most importantly: how can this be legal?
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