Mark Laws
Mark Laws - 

Kai Ryssdal: We're probably still a couple of lawsuits away from figuring out exactly how much power the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's eventually going to have. Senate Republicans say they're going to challenge President Obama's recess appointment of Richard Cordray to run the agency. The president says he did it because without a permanent director, the bureau couldn't do key parts of its job. One big part of which is regulating what're called non-bank activities -- check cashing, debt collection, payday lending.

Commentator and San Francisco resident Mark Laws has some experience.

Mark Laws: My mother died early on a Saturday in St. Louis. Right away my sister asked, when are you coming out? I was a cook at Al's Good Food Cafe on Mission, making $10 an hour. I didn't have the money.

I collected from friends what they could give, got an advance from my boss, but I still couldn't get there. So I went to this payday loan store. You can't miss their signs. I got a $300 loan. You write a check for $300, but you date it for your next payday. You get the cash right away -- minus $45.

I went to St. Louis, I lost a week of work, I came back and I was still broke -- and I had this loan. The problem is, you have to pay the whole $300 in two weeks. That's their payday. And there's no way to pay off just a piece.

I was making $500 every two weeks. I just didn't have $300, and they were about to cash my post-dated check. They said, don't worry, we'll give you another loan to cover it, minus of course another $45 fee.

This went on for two years. I was on the rat wheel. I paid $45 every two weeks because I didn't have $300 to pay off my debt. When my car broke down I asked if I could please, please have more time. They said no. They threatened to call the DA, press charges for a bounced check. I was trapped, ashamed. I didn't want to tell anyone.

I had written a check and thought, it's easy. When you ain't got nothing, you think, what's $45? It's not gonna break me. But when I figured it out after two years, it was $1,000. I thought loan sharking was a crime. It's not, it's legal.

Finally my credit union asked me, what was going on with all these checks? And they offered a real loan I could handle. And that's what I did. I've never had more than a couple hundred in the bank and the money's always earmarked. Sometimes you just give up. And when you give up, you do stupid stuff. I've decided, I'm not giving up anymore.

Ryssdal: Mark Laws comes to us from, "My Life Is True," a reporting project of the New America Foundation. Tell us what you think -- write to us.

This commentary first aired on KQED in San Francisco.

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