A recent report from the New York Times highlights a troubling change in the banking industry: according to the Times, banks across the country have taken to closing branches in middle- and low-income neighborhoods even as they maintained or opened new branches in wealthier areas.
Personal finance experts of all stripes are understandably upset about the shift – fewer available banks could have disastrous consequences for the financial health of families in affected areas.
The High Cost of Being “Unbanked”
Here’s a look at some of the potential ramifications closing banks in poorer areas.
- Increased reliance on payday lenders and check cashers: Without nearby bank branches, families in effected communities will be pushed to rely for their financial needs on so-called “predatory” lenders such as payday loan stores, cash advance outfits and check cashers. Such organizations can contribute to a cycle of poverty by charging high interest rates and fees for their services without offering clients a vehicle for saving their money.
- Diminished saving incentives and opportunities: Without ready access to savings accounts, people living in communities without brick-and-mortar banks have a slimmer chance at reaping the benefits of opening a savings account (including earning interest on their money). In the long term, this can make financial emergencies particularly devastating, and can lead to bankruptcy filings.
- Damaged credit and decreased ability to get loans: One thing that a savings account does is to bolster a person’s credit rating – when lenders run a credit check, they can view the status of a potential borrower’s bank accounts. Those with accounts in good standing who have a cash cushion available to them are considered better credit risks than those without any cash reserves. This can affect interest rates a borrower pays and thus determine how expensive or inexpensive a loan is.
A Look at the Numbers
So how dramatic was the shift toward closing banks in lower-income areas in the last two years? Here’s a look at the numbers, as reported in the Times:
- More closings than openings: 2010 reportedly marked the first year in a decade and a half that more banks closed their doors in the U.S. than opened them.
- Number of closings: In 2009, the country boasted 99,550 bank branches; last year, that number had fallen to 98,517 branches, nearly a 1,000-branch drop.
- Number of unbanked Americans: It seems that as many as 30 million Americans rely primarily or in part on “non-traditional” financial institutions like check cashers and payday lenders – that’s about 10 percent of the country.
- Big banks participating: While some smaller banks reportedly closed branches as part of consolidation moves to survive serious debt, it seems that Bank of America also closed 25 branches in communities with moderate income levels and opened 14 in richer places.
So why is this happening? On proposed reason is that the Community Reinvestment Act, meant to improve financial opportunities in poorer areas, is being insufficiently enforced.