Marissa Austin Tobin has lived most of her 37 years without a bank account.
“I was irresponsible,” said Austin Tobin, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. “I would pay my bills, but I would just spend the rest of my money.”
She needed to establish a financial history to qualify for a loan to start a catering business, so Austin Tobin opened accounts this year under a “Fresh Start” banking program that aims to help those who had mismanaged finances. Her savings, while still limited at about $500, are growing.
That’s not the case for some lower-income households as the world’s largest economy lags behind other developed nations in banking participation.
The share of the U.S. population 25 and older with a savings or checking account was 91 percent in 2011, lower than any other Group of Seven nation except Italy, based on the latest available World Bank data. That compares with 98 percent in Canada and the U.K. and 99 percent in Australia.
A less inclusive financial system cuts into people’s ability to prove creditworthiness and build assets, making it more difficult for households to get ahead. The costs of alternatives, including check-cashing operators, payday lenders and nonbank money-order suppliers, often borne by those without accounts, also exacerbate wealth inequality.
Low banking access “is one piece constraining growth and opportunity in this country,” said Andrea Levere, president of Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on economic opportunity for low-income adults. “Without financial security, you’re not going to take the leap to fund an education or buy a home.”
Comparatively limited use of savings and checking accounts is correlated with inequality, said Levere, a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s committee on economic inclusion.
About 82 percent of those in the bottom 40 percent of U.S. income distribution who are 15 and older have a bank account, compared with 93 percent for the rest, according to the World Bank’s 2011 data.
In Canada and Australia, which have less income inequality, the gaps are smaller. About 93 percent of lower-income Canadians hold an account, compared with 98 percent of higher-earners. Australia’s difference is even smaller, at 98 percent compared with almost 100 percent, World Bank data show.
Regional differences in banking also exist in the U.S. In the South, 9.2 percent of people don’t have an account compared with 7.4 percent in the West, 6.8 percent in the Northeast and 6.4 percent in the Midwest, based on FDIC data.
Policies also play a role, said Joe Valenti, director for asset building at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group that aligns with Democrats. For instance, all Canadian banks are required to provide accounts without minimum opening balances to all residents, regardless of employment or credit history. No such rule exists in the U.S., he said.
Other reasons for weak U.S. participation include a lack of faith in banks and inconsistent financial education, according to Robin Newnham at the Alliance for Financial Inclusion in Bangkok, who is a coordinator with the Group of 20’s financial inclusion initiative.
“Global surveys, particularly post the financial crisis of 2008-2009, have highlighted that the U.S. has amongst the highest levels of distrust in formal financial institutions,” Newnham wrote in an e-mail. “Financial education is also determined at the state level, whereas in some European countries it has been made mandatory in all schools nationwide as part of national financial education strategies.”
There are costs associated with operating outside the financial system. The average household that is either under- banked or has no accounts spends $2,412 per year on interest and fees for alternative financial services, a report this year from an office of the inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service stated. Under-banked households are those that have an account while also using alternative forms of financing.
Those services include check-cashers — which charge a fee — nonbank money orders and payday lenders. The typical two-week payday loan has an annual interest rate ranging from 391 percent to 521 percent, according to the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, North Carolina.
Establishing financial accounts can help people build the history and know-how to get traditional loans, Valenti said.
“You start with a checking account, the bank may offer you a savings account, it may offer you a car loan, a mortgage down the line,” he said. “It gives you that room to grow and build up your financial sophistication.”
Banking-industry representatives agree boosting inclusion is good for communities and business, while pointing out one obstacle is that some households just don’t want accounts.
“Banks exist to serve their communities, and then adding customers to your portfolio, even just through a checking account is a good thing,” said David Pommerehn, assistant vice president and senior counsel at the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group for retail banks whose members include American Express Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. “The hope is that those folks become more financially stable,” and graduate into more sophisticated products within the bank.
There has been some progress in the last couple of years, according to an analysis issued by the FDIC last month. About 7.7 percent of U.S. households lacked an account at an insured institution in 2013, down from 8.2 percent in 2011, according to the new FDIC analysis released last month. Still, that just brought the share back to roughly 2009 levels.
That’s probably the result of an improving economy, Valenti said, as joblessness is associated with poor bank access. The unemployment rate was at 6.7 percent at the end of 2013 compared with 8.5 percent two years earlier.
The increasing prevalence of products such as fee-less, zero-balance and no over-draft checking accounts could also help pull more Americans into the financial fold.
Prepaid cards, which are loaded with money to spend, are another evolving inclusion tool. They function similarly to checking accounts, yet don’t permit overdrafts.
Prepaid products “remove some of the barriers encountered with traditional bank accounts, such as credit-history problems, minimum-balance requirements, and overdraft fees,” Elisa Tavilla wrote in a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report this year, which cites BB&T Corp.’s MoneyAccount and the Chase Liquid account from JPMorgan Chase & Co. among other products.
Nonetheless, these programs sometimes include fees that make them more expensive than a regular bank account, said Alliance for Financial Inclusion’s Newnham.
Mobile phone payment and account applications help people monitor their money in real-time, and could make banking more accessible. Still, technologies that might pull Americans without accounts into the system “are less well-established in the marketplace,” according to an FDIC report from June.
Austin Tobin, who obtained a $5,000 business loan, is an example of why tapping into the financial-services industry can provide an economic boost.
“I have grown so mature, so responsible with my money,” she said, and that’s enabled her to get going on her dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Her catering business is allowing her to showcase her baked spaghetti and parmesan-crusted chicken wings. “I’m head-in.”
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