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Martin Eakes, Lender to the Poor

Martin Eakes bet his career on a contrarian notion: poor people can be better at borrowing money than the rich. His Durham, North Carolina, community credit union, Self-Help, serves a clientele of classic credit risks—low-income families, single mothers. The loss rate for Self-Help’s so-called “toxic” borrowers? Less than 1 percent. “If I have a choice between making a loan to a rich person or one to a poor person, solely on grounds of credit risk, I’ll pick a poor person every time,” says Eakes, 54. “They simply take care of their debts better.” Since Eakes started Self-Help in 1984, it has provided more than $5.24 billion in financing to 60,130 homebuyers, small businesses, and nonprofits. In 1999 he led the battle for North Carolina’s pioneering anti-predatory-lending law and, as early as 2002, warned federal legislators that corrupt financial practices had set the scene for a massive wave of foreclosures. He’s now battling to make sure that the Great Subprime Meltdown doesn’t further victimize the most vulnerable. “We’ve got proof that families of limited financial means will be incredibly great borrowers if given the chance,” he says. “And there’s no one who can convince me otherwise.”

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