I walked past the International Monetary Fund on Pennsylvania Avenue on a sunny Saturday morning, a few blocks from the White House. Three large posters of international faces filled their windows, covered by the text #EndPoverty.
Across the street, two homeless men emerged from their tents.
More than 1 in 10 Americans – nearly 45 million people – are living below the poverty line. The United States has one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world, second only to Israel. A survey conducted by CareerBuilder estimated that 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck – a number that has been steadily increasing each year. The U.S. consistently ranks as one of the most affluent countries in the world, yet these statistics obscure the financial health of its population and how its wealth is distributed.
It is well known that profitably serving low-income clients can be a challenge. Earlier this year, Bank of America eliminated its free eBanking checking accounts, which now require a $1,500 daily minimum balance or a $250 monthly deposit to avoid a $12 monthly “maintenance” fee. If Bank of America were a country, it would have the 8th highest GDP in the world, at $2.2 trillion in assets. It started in San Francisco as a bank for the common man. Surely it can follow the lead of many other financial institutions and offer a bank account that works for low-income people.
As we’ve written on the blog before, several of the day-to-day services that banked populations take for granted are costly and time-consuming for the unbanked. Cashing a check? Fee. Obtaining a pre-paid debit card? Fee. Transferring money? Fee. Money order to pay bills? Fee. Although these fees might seem small in dollar terms, they add up over time, and for Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, every penny counts. According to consumer advocate Bill Bartmann, the 68 million financially underserved Americans spend an average of $108 per month per person on financial services.
Globally, financial inclusion is evolving and advancing. Where are we on progress in the United States?
Access to financial services in the United States is improving. Roughly 7 percent of American households lack access to a bank account, and around 20 percent have a bank account but also use financial services associated with the financially excluded, like payday loans. By comparison, in 1989, 14 percent of U.S. households lacked a bank account. Improvements in services access were especially pronounced among those in the bottom income quintile and among minority households, which, over the period of 1989 to 2013, experienced an increase in access from 56 to 79 percent and from 65 to 87 percent, respectively.
In terms of financial health, the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) finds that 57 percent of American adults are struggling financially – with either large sums of debt, irregular income flows, and/or sporadic savings habits. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) estimates that approximately 91 million U.S. adults are credit-challenged, stemming either from being low-file or having a subprime credit score below 600.
Last year saw the country reaching an all-time high in terms of total household debt, at roughly $13 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data. This was the fifth rise, with increases across the credit card, auto, mortgage, and student loan categories.
Arguably the most dramatic rise has been in student loan debt. In 2008, student debt made up only 5 percent of total household debt, but by 2017 this had increased to 11 percent. As of 2017, student loan borrowers owe a total of $1.3 trillion. Moreover, roughly one in ten student loan borrowers are behind on repayments, which is the highest delinquency rate of any type of loan in the country.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the personal savings rate in the United States is at roughly 5.7 percent, meaning that for every $100 earned, $5.70 is saved for purposes including emergencies, retirement, and the proverbial rainy-day. While this figure is a substantial improvement over the 1.9 percent savings rate before the financial crisis in 2008, a recommended healthy savings habit would involve setting aside between 10 percent and 15 percent of income.
Like many other countries, retirement savings in the United States are a growing problem as more baby boomers reach retirement age. According to Census Bureau data, older Americans were the only demographic that experienced a poverty rate increase between 2015 and 2016. Across the country’s adult population, the Census Bureau finds that two-thirds of Americans don’t contribute any money to a 401(k) or other retirement account.
Over the past decade, transformations in technology, products, and business models have pushed the U.S. to meet a growing demand for financial inclusion.
As of February 2016, there were over 2,000 U.S. fintech start-ups, and fintech venture capital is steadily growing. One the biggest fintech success stories in the United States is the peer-to-peer mobile-based payment service Venmo. Owned by PayPal, Venmo has exhibited staggering growth. In the first quarter of 2015, Venmo processed $1.3 billion in payments, while two and a half years later, in the third quarter of 2017, the figure was $9 billion. In an effort to compete with Venmo and other payment apps, commercial banks are expanding their financial service offerings. A consortium of banks that includes Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Capital One rolled out Zelle in 2017, which is based on a similar model and allows for free, instant transfers between accounts of registered users.
Nationwide, there are more than 800 Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), private organizations fighting financial exclusion in rural areas (often deemed “bank deserts”) and disadvantaged urban zones. For customers who want to make sure their money is used to benefit communities, Morgan Simon of the Candide Group suggests breaking up with your bank in favor of more socially-minded financial institutions like CDFIs, credit unions and community-based commercial banks.
Despite the increasingly digital payment structure of the U.S. financial system, millions of Americans still prefer cash over card. While 80 percent and 75 percent of American adults have a debit or credit card, respectively, more than 99 percent report that they still use cash. Innovative companies that recognize the need for payment flexibility are starting to fill in the gaps. PayNearMe, for instance, offers remote transactions at more than 28,000 locations, such as CVS and 7-Eleven. At these neighborhood retailers, payments can be made for bills, rent, tickets and even taxes to participating entities located elsewhere.
At a federal level, the U.S. has implemented several programs to expand financial inclusion. To help alleviate the issue of inadequate retirement savings, the Obama administration introduced My Retirement Account (myRA) for people without access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. While the program was not well-advertised and saw low usage during its three years of activity, it was a step in the right direction. The retirement accounts didn’t carry fees or minimum balance requirements, and any earnings or withdrawals were tax free. Unfortunately the program was dropped by the current administration in December 2017.
Eradicating financial exclusion in the United States will require cooperation among all sectors, public and private. While there may not be a simple solution, everyone has something to gain from creating a solid financial foundation for low-income Americans.
Featured image credit: Doug Focht via Flickr Creative Commons
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