In 2005, the Brookings Institution sent shockwaves through our community when it revealed Fresno had the highest concentration of poverty of any U.S. city. Nearly half of all those living below the poverty line (today, $23,550 for a family of four) were concentrated in 22 identifiable neighborhoods.
Our concentrated poverty (where at least 40% of a neighborhood's residents live in poverty) is almost entirely in south Fresno -- a "tale of two cities," as former Mayor Alan Autry coined it. A 2012 census report listed Fresno as having the second highest poverty rate (26.2%) of any U.S. metropolitan area, revealing that this concentrated poverty isn't isolated to just 22 small pockets.
These reports should concern us all because poverty affects the economy of the entire city and region -- not just those falling within the government's official definition.
This inequality and suffering in our city has a direct relationship with the types of businesses more recently opening. Many of us have probably noticed an explosion of dollar stores and others that cater to low-income demographics.
While we can debate what it says for some neighborhoods to have only dollar and liquor stores for groceries and other neighborhoods to have full-service grocery stores, a more concerning and morally-infuriating issue is the proliferation of business models explicitly profiting off our concentrated poverty, something our coalition of faith leaders and institutions is now calling "concentrated usury."
This "poverty industry" includes housing slumlords who have bought up foreclosed homes in distressed areas, only to board them up (contributing to significant blight) until they can "flip" them as run-down rentals to families powerless to speak up for their rights -- often because they are undocumented.
However, we at Faith in Community are most outraged at and committed to stand against one such entity: predatory payday lenders.
We are called by scripture -- Proverbs 22:22 -- which says, "Do not rob the poor because they are poor." We believe it is time for us -- and particularly our elected representatives -- to open our eyes and respond to this exploitation of the working poor.
Fifty-four of the at least 65 payday lender outlets in Fresno are located on or south of Shaw Avenue. Eight appear on the half-mile stretch of Kings Canyon between Chestnut and Willow in southeast Fresno.
Payday lenders offer "short-term, emergency" loans to those needing an immediate cash infusion before their next paycheck. Borrowers can take out a loan of up to $300, with an automatic $45 fee.
While that may sound exorbitant, that's only the beginning. The vast majority of borrowers find themselves unable to repay the loan by their next pay period, meaning they usually are forced to take out another loan to begin paying off the first loan.
The average customer ends up in a debt spiral for at least half the year, ultimately having faced an APR of at least 400%. A 400% interest rate!
It's no surprise that so many payday lenders with corporate headquarters far removed from Fresno have flocked to our city's poverty landscape.
We believe our collective anger and desire for justice should be directed not only at these carnivorous business executives, but that we also entreaty bold leadership from our city's elected representatives.
On their watch, this "poverty industry" has profited immensely off those struggling to make ends meet, hindering our entire city's economic development.
While we respect the importance of a free market, we also view government as an irreplaceable protector of the people. We ask our local officials to enact local zoning restrictions to curtail the proliferation of payday loan outlets in low- and moderate-income areas of Fresno.
Matthew Jendian is a professor of sociology at Fresno State. Rev. Booker T. Lewis II is pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Fresno. Andy Levine is executive director of Faith in Community (http://www.faithinfresno.org).