Cash checking fees, prepaid card fees, money transfer fees, cashier's check fees -- all together, the unbanked pay up to 10% of their income simply to use their own money. And when lower-income people face an emergency, they must turn to expensive payday loans, title loans, and tax refund loans. As Mehrsa Baradaran (University of Georgia) writes in her new book, How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy, "indeed, it is very expensive to be poor."
How did this happen? And how might we begin to solve the problem? In her book, Baradaran details how banks and government are and always have been inextricably tied, with the government helping banks and the banks supposedly helping the public in return. But this "social contract" has eroded. The banking sector has turned away from less profitable markets, leaving people with small sums of money to deposit without a trustworthy place to stash their cash, and people in need of small sums of money to borrow nowhere to turn but fringe lenders. Moreover, these people understandably often are uncomfortable dealing with large banks. And the result is that an astonishing large chunk of the American population is unbanked or underbanked.
If the unbanked and underbanked had a trustworthy place to deposit their cash, some of the fees they pay simply to use their money would go away. This alone might allow families to stay financially afloat. Likewise, if they had the option to borrow small sums of money at reasonable rates, temporary financial emergencies may not set so many families up for a lifetime of financial failure. Which leads Baradaran to a proposal that I’m fond of (indeed, I’ve blogged about Baradaran’s thoughts on it before): postal banking.