Fringe financial services is the label sometimes applied to payday lending and its close cousins, like installment lending and auto-title lending—services that provide quick cash to credit-strapped borrowers. It’s a euphemism, sure, but one that seems to aptly convey the dubiousness of the activity and the location of the customer outside the mainstream of American life.

And yet the fringe has gotten awfully large. The typical payday-lending customer, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a white woman age 25 to 44. Payday lenders serve more than 19 million American households—nearly one in six—according to the Community Financial Services Association of America, the industry’s trade group. And even that’s only a fraction of those who could become customers any day now. The group’s CEO, Dennis Shaul, told Congress in February that as many as 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, without the resources to cover unexpected expenses. Or, as an online lender called Elevate Credit, which offers small loans that often have triple-digit annualized interest rates, put it in a recent financial filing, “Decades-long macroeconomic trends and the recent financial crisis have resulted in a growing ‘New Middle Class’ with little to no savings, urgent credit needs and limited options.”

Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up. As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”

Perhaps you know all this already—certainly, an assuredly mainstream backlash has been building. Last spring, President Obama weighed in, saying, “While payday loans might seem like easy money, folks often end up trapped in a cycle of debt.” The comedian Sarah Silverman, in a Last Week Tonight With John Oliver skit, put things more directly: “If you’re considering taking out a payday loan, I’d like to tell you about a great alternative. It’s called ‘AnythingElse.’ ” Now the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created at the urging of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is trying to set new rules for short-term, small-dollar lenders. Payday lenders say the rules may put them out of business.

The stakes are very high, not just for the lenders, but for the whole “new middle class.” It seems obvious that there must be a far less expensive way of providing credit to the less creditworthy. But once you delve into the question of why rates are so high, you begin to realize that the solution isn’t obvious at all.

“Say, don’t you know this business is a blessing to the poor?” So said Frank Jay Mackey, who was known as the king of the loan sharks in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, according to Quick Cash, a book about the industry by Robert Mayer, a political-science professor at Loyola University Chicago. There are many parallels between the early-20th-century loan sharks and today’s payday lenders, including the fact that both sprang up at times when the income divide was growing. Back then the loans were illegal, because states had usury caps that prevented lending at rates much higher than single digits. Still, those illegal loans were far cheaper than today’s legal ones. “At the turn of the twentieth century, 20% a month was a scandal,” Mayer writes. “Today, the average payday loan is twice as expensive as that.”

The idea that interest rates should have limits goes back to the beginning of civilization. Even before money was invented, the early Babylonians set a ceiling on how much grain could be paid in interest, according to Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and a senior adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: They recognized the pernicious effects of trapping a family with debt that could not be paid back. In the United States, early, illegal payday-like loans trapped many borrowers, and harassment by lenders awoke the ire of progressives. States began to pass versions of the Uniform Small Loan Law, drafted in 1916 under the supervision of Arthur Ham, the first director of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Department of Remedial Loans. Ham recognized a key truth about small, short-term loans: They are expensive for lenders to make. His model law tried to encourage legal short-term lending by capping rates at a high enough level—states determined their own ceilings, typically ranging from 36 to 42 percent a year—to enable lenders to turn a profit. This was highly controversial, but many Americans still could not secure loans at that rate; their risk of default was deemed too great. Some of them eventually turned to the mob, which grew strong during Prohibition.

There’s no single reason payday lending in its more mainstream, visible form took off in the 1990s, but an essential enabler was deregulation. States began to roll back usury caps, and changes in federal laws helped lenders structure their loans so as to avoid the caps. By 2008, writes Jonathan Zinman, an economist at Dartmouth, payday-loan stores nationwide outnumbered McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks coffee shops combined.

A customer enters a Payroll Advance location in Cincinnati. (Al Behrman / AP)

Now, however, the storefront-payday-lending industry is embattled. In 2006, after much outcry about the upcropping of payday lenders near military bases, Congress passed a law capping at 36 percent the annualized rate that lenders could charge members of the military. In response to pressure from consumer advocates, many states have begun trying to rein in the industry, through either regulation or outright bans. Lenders have excelled at finding loopholes in these regulations. Still, according to Pew, the number of states in which payday lenders operate has fallen from a peak of 44 in 2004 to 36 this year. Nationwide, according to the Center for Financial Services Innovation, “single-payment credit”—so named because the amount borrowed is due in one lump sum—barely grew from 2012 to 2014.

One problem with the payday-lending industry—for regulators, for lenders, for the public interest—is that it defies simple economic intuition. For instance, in most industries, more competition means lower prices for consumers. That maxim surely helped guide the deregulation of the fringe lending business in the 1990s—and some advocates still believe that further deregulation is the key to making payday loans affordable. Yet there’s little evidence that a proliferation of payday lenders produces this consumer-friendly competitive effect. Quite the contrary: While states with no interest-rate limits do have more competition—there are more stores—borrowers in those states (Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin) pay the highest prices in the country, more than double those paid by residents of some other states, according to Pew. In states where the interest rate is capped, the rate that payday lenders charge gravitates right toward the cap. “Instead of a race to the lowest rates, it’s a race to the highest rates,” says Tom Feltner, the director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.

The explanation for this is not simple, and a variety of economic jargon floats around the issue. But it all begins with this: The typical payday-loan consumer is too desperate, too unsophisticated, or too exhausted from being treated with disrespect by traditional lenders to engage in price shopping. So demand is what economists call price inelastic. As Clarence Hodson, who published a book in 1919 about the business of small loans, put it, “Necessity cannot bargain to advantage with cupidity.” In its last annual financial report, Advance America, one of the country’s biggest payday lenders, wrote, “We believe that the principal competitive factors are customer service, location, convenience, speed, and confidentiality.” You’ll notice it didn’t mention price.

But if the only explanation for high rates were that lenders can, so they do, you’d expect to see an industry awash in profits. It is not, especially today. The industry’s profits are tough to track—many companies are private—but in 2009, Ernst & Young released a study, commissioned by the Financial Service Centers of America, finding that stores’ average profit margin before tax and interest was less than 10 percent. (For the sake of comparison, over the past five quarters, the consumer-financial-services industry as a whole averaged a pretax profit margin of more than 30 percent, according to CSIMarket, a provider of financial information.) A perusal of those financial statements that are public confirms a simple fact: As payday lending exploded, the economics of the business worsened—and are today no better than middling. The Community Financial Services Association argues that a 36 percent rate cap, like the one in place for members of the military, is a death knell because payday lenders can’t make money at that rate, and this seems to be correct. In states that cap their rates at 36 percent a year or lower, the payday lenders vanish. In New York, which caps payday lending at 25 percent a year, there are no stores at all.

It may seem inconceivable that a company couldn’t make money collecting interest at a 36 percent annual clip. One reason it’s true is that default rates are high. A study in 2007 by two economists, Mark Flannery and Katherine Samolyk, found that defaults account for more than 20 percent of operating expenses at payday-loan stores. By comparison, loan losses in 2007 at small U.S. commercial banks accounted for only 3 percent of expenses, according to the Kansas City Fed. This isn’t surprising, given that payday lenders don’t look carefully at a borrower’s income, expenses, or credit history to ensure that she can repay the loan: That underwriting process, the bedrock of conventional lending, would be ruinously expensive when applied to a $300, two-week loan. Instead, lenders count on access to the borrower’s checking account—but if that’s empty due to other withdrawals or overdrafts, it’s empty.

The bigger problem for payday lenders is the overhead. Alex Horowitz, a research manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that on average, two-thirds of the fees payday lenders collect are spent just keeping the lights on. The average storefront serves only 500 customers a year, and employee turnover is ridiculously high. For instance, QC Holdings, a publicly traded nationwide lender, reported that it had to replace approximately 65 percent of its branch-level employees in 2014. “The profits are not extraordinary,” Horowitz says. “What is extraordinary is the inefficiency.”

In a vicious cycle, the higher the permitted fees, the more stores, so the fewer customers each store serves, so the higher the fees need to be. Competition, in other words, does reduce profits to lenders, as expected—but it seems to carry no benefit to consumers, at least as measured by the rates they’re charged. (The old loan sharks may have been able to charge lower rates because of lower overhead, although it’s impossible to know. Robert Mayer thinks the explanation may have more to do with differences in the customer base: Because credit alternatives were sparse back then, these lenders served a more diverse and overall more creditworthy set of borrowers, so default rates were probably lower.)

The Twisted economics of payday lending can’t be separated from its predatory nature. The industry has always insisted that its products are intended only for short-term emergency use and that it doesn’t encourage repeat borrowing—the debt trap. “This is like the tobacco industry saying that smoking doesn’t cause cancer,” says Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Study after study has found that repeat borrowing accounts for a large share of the industry’s revenues. Flannery and Samolyk found that “high per-customer loan volume” helps payday lenders cover their overhead and offset defaults. At a financial-services event in 2007, Daniel Feehan, then the CEO of the payday lender Cash America, said, according to multiple reports (here and here), “The theory in the business is you’ve got to get that customer in, work to turn him into a repetitive customer, long-term customer, because that’s really where the profitability is.”

After studying millions of payday loans, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that 67 percent went to borrowers with seven or more transactions a year, and the majority of borrowers paid more in fees than the amount of their initial loan. This is why Diane Standaert, the director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending, which argues for a 36 percent interest-rate cap, says, “The typical borrower experience involves long-term indebtedness—that’s core to the business model.”

And yet it is surprisingly difficult to condemn the business wholesale. Emergency credit can be a lifeline, after all. And while stories about the payday-lending industry’s individual victims are horrible, the research on its effect at a more macro level is limited and highly ambiguous. One study shows that payday lending makes local communities more resilient; another says it increases personal bankruptcies; and so on.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t have the power to ban payday lending outright, or to set a nationwide interest-rate cap, but it can act to prevent practices deemed “unfair, abusive, or deceptive.” In March 2015, it announced that it was considering a set of rules for most small-dollar loans (up to $500) that consumers are required to repay within 45 days. The goal is to put an end to payday-lending debt traps.

That makes plenty of sense in theory. Payday lending in its most unfettered form seems to be ideal for neither consumers nor lenders. As Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago, told a group of finance professionals in a speech last year, “The efficient outcome cannot be achieved without mandatory regulation.” One controversy is whether the bureau, in its zeal to protect consumers, is going too far. Under the plan it is now considering, lenders would have to make sure that borrowers can repay their loans and cover other living expenses without extensive defaults or reborrowing. These actions would indeed seem to curtail the possibility of people falling into debt traps with payday lenders. But the industry argues that the rules would put it out of business. And while a self-serving howl of pain is precisely what you’d expect from any industry under government fire, this appears, based on the business model, to be true—not only would the regulations eliminate the very loans from which the industry makes its money, but they would also introduce significant new underwriting expenses on every loan.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (left) talks with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray after he testified about Wall Street reform at a 2014 Senate Banking Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The rules should be formally proposed this spring, but the pushback—from the industry and from more-surprising sources—has already been fierce. Dennis Shaul, who, before he became the head of the industry’s trade association, was a senior adviser to then-Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, accused the rule-makers of a harmful paternalism, rooted in a belief that payday-lending customers “are not able to make their own choices about credit.” All 10 of Florida’s congressional Democrats wrote in a letter to Richard Cordray, the bureau’s director, that the proposals do an “immeasurable disservice to our constituents, many of whom rely on the availability of short-term and small-dollar loans.” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently co-sponsored a bill that would delay the regulations for at least two years.

“Payday lending brings up this meta issue,” says Prentiss Cox, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s law school and a member of the consumer advisory board at the bureau: “What should consumer protection be?” If most payday-lending customers ultimately need to fall back on financial support from family members, or on bankruptcy, then perhaps the industry should be eliminated, because it merely makes the inevitable more painful. Yet some consumers do use payday loans just as the industry markets them—as a short-term emergency source of cash, one that won’t be there if the payday-lending industry goes away. The argument that payday lending shouldn’t exist would be easy if there were widespread, affordable sources of small-dollar loans. But thus far, there are not.

Along with reforming payday lending, Cordray is trying to jawbone banks and credit unions into offering small-dollar, payday-like loans. Theoretically, they could use their preexisting branches, mitigating the overhead costs that affect payday stores and hence enabling profitable lending at a much lower rate. This is the holy grail for consumer advocates. “What everyone really wants to see is for it to come into the mainstream of financial services if it’s going to exist at all,” Cox says.

This idea has been around since at least 2005, when Sheila Bair, before her tenure at the FDIC, wrote a paper arguing that banks were the natural solution. But that was more than a decade ago. “The issue has been intractable,” Bair says. Back in 2008, the FDIC began a two-year pilot program encouraging banks to make small-dollar loans with an annualized interest-rate cap of 36 percent. But it didn’t take off, at least in part because of the time required for bank personnel, who are paid a lot more than payday-store staffers, to underwrite the loans. The idea is also at odds with a different federal mandate: Since the financial crisis, bank regulators have been insisting that their charges take less risk, not more. After guidelines issued by the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency warned of the risks involved in small-dollar lending, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bankcorp stopped offering payday-like loans altogether.

A more nefarious theory is that banks currently make a lot of money on a payday-lending alternative that already exists—namely, overdraft protection. One study done by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that most debit-card overdraft fees are incurred on transactions of $24 or less, and yield a median fee of $34. Why would banks want to undercut such a rich source of profits?

As for credit unions, although a few have had success offering small, short-term loans, many struggle with regulators, with reputational risk, and with the cost of making such loans. “We are all cognizant that we should do it, but it is very challenging to figure out a business model that works,” says Tom Kane, the president of the Illinois Credit Union League. In any event, the credit-union industry is small—smaller altogether, Kane points out, than JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo alone. “The scale isn’t there,” he says.

Elizabeth Warren has endorsed the idea of the Postal Service partnering with banks to offer short-term loans. But even some fellow opponents of payday lending think that’s unfeasible. In a New York Times op-ed last fall, Frederick Wherry, a sociology professor at Yale, pointed out that doing this would require the Postal Service to have a whole new infrastructure, and its employees a whole new skill set. Another alternative would seem to be online companies, because they don’t have the storefront overhead. But they may have difficulty managing consumer fraud, and are themselves difficult to police, so they may at times evade state caps on interest rates. So far, the rates charged by many Internet lenders seem to be higher, not lower, than those charged by traditional lenders. (Elevate Credit, which says it has a sophisticated, technology-based way of underwriting loans, brags that its loans for the “new middle class” are half the cost of typical payday loans—but it is selective in its lending, and still charges about 200 percent annually.) Promising out-of-the-box ideas, in other words, are in short supply.

Perhaps a solution of sorts—something that is better, but not perfect—could come from more-modest reforms to the payday-lending industry, rather than attempts to transform it. There is some evidence that smart regulation can improve the business for both lenders and consumers. In 2010, Colorado reformed its payday-lending industry by reducing the permissible fees, extending the minimum term of a loan to six months, and requiring that a loan be repayable over time, instead of coming due all at once. Pew reports that half of the payday stores in Colorado closed, but each remaining store almost doubled its customer volume, and now payday borrowers are paying 42 percent less in fees and defaulting less frequently, with no reduction in access to credit. “There’s been a debate for 20 years about whether to allow payday lending or not,” says Pew’s Alex Horowitz. “Colorado demonstrates it can be much, much better.”

Maybe that’s about as good as it gets on the fringe. Outrage is easy, and outrage is warranted—but maybe payday lenders shouldn’t be its main target. The problem isn’t just that people who desperately need a $350 loan can’t get it at an affordable rate, but that a growing number of people need that loan in the first place.