High inflation and soaring interest rates are taking a financial toll on many Americans, especially low-income minorities, compelling a growing number to borrow money to make ends meet, according to debt monitoring organizations. At the same time, people of color are increasingly turning away from traditional lending institutions, opting instead to ask family and friends for a personal loan.
"I asked my sister to lend me money," said Monica Welborn, an African American mother of two from Maryland. Welborn reluctantly made the request after being denied a bank loan for $4,000.
"They [the bank] said my credit score was too low to receive a [standard] loan," she told VOA. "They offered to lend me half of what I wanted but at a very high interest rate."
Welborn is among millions who face roadblocks to borrowing from traditional lending institutions. Minorities are especially likely to seek loans from other sources, usually people they know. A survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this year found that 17% of Black Americans and 15% of Hispanics had borrowed money from family and friends, compared to 7% of whites.
But informal loans can present challenges as well, including something as basic as nailing down the terms of repayment. A Florida-based financial technology firm is part of a growing industry dedicated to facilitating non-traditional lending, sometimes referred to as peer-to-peer.
"There's got to be a better way from a software perspective we can make these loans a little less cumbersome, and a little less of a burden," said Kaben Clauson, co-founder of Pigeon Loans. His company is hoping to capitalize on providing services for the tens of millions of Americans who rely on borrowing from friends and family.
Clauson, 34, launched the free online platform last year to make it easier for people to lend and borrow money outside the banking system. "You create a payment plan, and say I want to pay you back over the next 15 months and this is how much I'm going to pay you," he said.
The service sends out text message reminders to borrowers to help ensure money is paid back on time and with minimal drama. The lender can also add an agreed upon interest rate, which Clauson maintains is typically much lower than those offered by banks.
Pigeon Loans said its service has increased 200% in the past two months, with 70% of its users either Black, Latino or Asian. "These are traditionally disadvantaged communities. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck, but those communities have a legacy of helping one another," Clauson told VOA.
Small business lending
Such lending isn't limited to individuals for their own needs. Pigeon Loans has seen an uptick in the number of loans given to minority business owners. There are an estimated 8 million minority-owned businesses across the country, and most are sole proprietorships, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Clauson's company recently helped an African American entrepreneur in the nation's capital open a bakery with a $10,000 loan from a friend. "People in other communities that are more advantaged have a rich uncle or parents that can help them get them going," he said. "That's not the case for many in minority communities, particularly for entrepreneurs."
Some observers see peer-to-peer lending as a crutch, not a solution. "Personal loans can help with startup opportunities for Black-owned businesses but it's not a long-term solution," said Rick Wade, senior vice president of strategic alliances at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We want small minority companies across America to have a solid relationship with traditional lending institutions to help grow their business and we've got a lot of work to do in that regard."
Taking on debt
Clauson predicts a wave of lending and borrowing on his platform next year if the U.S. economy slows and people take on more debt. He argues that borrowing from family, a neighbor or a colleague at work makes sense, especially when times are tough. "They're likely going to give you the most favorable interest rate and payment terms," he said.
Traditional lending institutions go to great lengths to vet borrowers and make sure they can repay loans. Does bypassing such procedures lead to greater loan delinquency? Not according to Pigeon Loans.
The company says its platform has attracted more than 50,000 users who, according to Clauson, have a 97% on-time repayment rate. The loan default rate, in which the money is never repaid, is said to be less than 1%.
Clauson acknowledges the loan platform may not be for everyone and warns against lending money that would otherwise be used to pay for one's own core expenses.
"If you happen to be lucky enough to have some discretionary cash you can lend, go for it. But make sure that you have your own financial house in order first," he said.