This study compares banked and unbanked families across several categories including financial behavior, economic status and perceptions of the financial service industry
American families without a bank account live in a dangerous financial world.1 Lacking access to government-insured savings or opportunities to build credit, they not only incur risks of theft, fraud and loss, but by using alternative financial service (AFS) providers such as check cashers or payday lenders, they also become prey to expensive predatory products and services that make it harder for them to achieve financial security. Prior research by the Pew Health Group (PHG) on California families confirms the widely shared view that having a bank account generally provides access to basic financial services at a lower cost than using AFS.2
To reduce these risks and costs, PHG's Financial Security Portfolio has helped unbanked households open a safe and affordable bank account as the first step in joining the financial mainstream. The PHG Safe Banking Opportunities Project provided research and technical assistance to help more than 50 cities and localities kick off “Bank On” programs that bring together banks, local government and community groups to promote responsible bank account ownership. More recently, we investigated the products and services that banks might provide to attract and serve more unbanked individuals.3
In 2009, we began an in-depth study of the financial behaviors of similarly situated unbanked and banked low-income families to inform policy solutions that would bring more Americans into the financial mainstream. This is the first report from a multi-phase survey of 1,000 banked and 1,000 unbanked households in greater Los Angeles, randomly selected from eight low-income study areas for in-person interviews at several intervals over the course of a year (July 2009 to July 2010). Our findings from the first wave, or phase, of this study suggest several policy directions for further investigation to help unbanked families shift to the safer world of the banked. The data shows different patterns of financial behavior between the Banked and the Unbanked in our study. Moreover, it reveals that the Banked and Unbanked further segment into distinct sub-groups based on their usage of financial services and providers: a banked only group, a cross¬over group that has bank accounts but also uses AFS, an unbanked AFS-only group, and an unbanked cash economy group that uses cash only.
We found some demographic differences between the two groups. The banked respondents in our study are older (40 years) on average than their unbanked counterparts (34.5 years). Both types of respondents are likely to be foreign born (65% for the Banked and 69% for the Unbanked), but each has resided in the United States for many years (21 years on average for the Banked, 14 for the Unbanked). Members of both groups tend to be employed in similar non¬technical professions and have similar unemployment rates (12–13%), but the Banked earn higher wages and salaries (an average of $29,400 annually compared to an average of $17,300 for the Unbanked). With average family sizes of 4.4 and 4.7 persons, respectively, this puts the Banked just above the federal poverty line, and the Unbanked below it. Close to two¬thirds of the Banked (60%) have completed high school, compared to less than half (48%) of the Unbanked (Appendix A).
Summary of Findings
Through research and advocacy, PHG's Financial Security Portfolio helps American families gain access to safe and affordable financial products and services that empower them to manage their money, pay their bills and develop a credit rating. Our latest and ongoing effort, a multiphase survey of 1,000 banked and 1,000 unbanked households in greater Los Angeles, examines the financial behavior of these two groups at a level of detail not previously attained.
The objectives of this study are:
Read Full Section: Introduction (PDF)
WHO ARE THE UNBANKED?
WHO ARE THE BANKED?
Read Full Section: Key Findings (PDF)
The Opportunity for Banks and Credit Unions
The size and density of the underserved Los Angeles community revealed by this study offers financial institutions an opportunity to secure relatively substantial cash deposits in addition to greater fees for transactional services. At least in Los Angeles, the data suggest there are thousands more unbanked households than prior surveys indicate. The FDIC's 2009 national survey of the nation's unbanked population estimated that they represented 7.7% of the nation's population and 9.2% of the Los Angeles MSA. These numbers are much higher in low-income neighborhoods like those surveyed by PHG, where estimates of the Unbanked range between 17% and 28%, and perhaps higher among less-educated individuals and non-English speaking households.14 Among Los Angeles County's population of nearly 10 million persons, we conservatively estimate there are 1–1.25 million unbanked individuals.15
The Unbanked represent an emerging, untapped market for bank services. Some 85% are unbanked by choice and 63% have never had an account. In Los Angeles, high-density, low-income neighborhoods such as those surveyed contain high concentrations of Unbanked, making them attractive targets for bank efforts to attract market share. In a number of the City's urban communities the “income density” (a metric that quantifies income relative to area, measuring local purchasing power) aggregates between $300,000 and $400,000 per acre, which is three to four times the regional average.16 Used by retailers and developers to identify underserved markets for investment, income density is a metric of growing popularity. Simply put, when it comes to market demand for basic, affordable, quality retail goods, including bank products, any lack of per capita income in low¬income urban neighborhoods is more than compensated by the exceptional density of the region.
Our research indicates that Los Angeles' low-income communities present a loyal, solid customer profile that would utilize between four and six revenue-generating financial services. Geographic proximity and a fair and transparent fee structure appear to be the key components of customer loyalty. Trust of financial service providers (whether a mainstream bank or an alternative provider) appears to come with experience and working relationships. The Banked trust banks, but not AFS providers.
Our findings further show that those who use AFS—both the cross¬over and the AFS¬only segments—also offer banks an unclaimed market for the financial services these households now purchase from alternative providers. Our prior research has shown those who use AFS pay a median amount of $700 a year just to cash checks, and an undetermined additional amount for other services.17 In the study area alone, representing a 2000 U.S. Census count of 578,705 persons, aggregate AFS fees could amount to tens of millions of dollars annually.
The crossover population appears to provide a particularly strong potential market for banking services. While crossover customers maintain a bank account for certain purposes, such as to receive direct deposit from an employer, they purchase other financial products based on perceived value from AFS providers. Regularly using both banks and AFS providers, this group has no significant negative perceptions associated with either industry player.
Similarly, the Los Angeles region's substantial cash economy segment may offer a promising market for banks. The study indicates that these are working, multiearner households that spend and transact regularly in the local economy. They have lived in this country, on average, for well over a decade. Although they transact only in cash, their trust intuitively lies with the U.S. banking system over AFS providers. They are disciplined money managers: on a salary well below the poverty line in a median range of $10,000 to $14,999, they set aside almost $3,000 per year to send to their families abroad. Viewed as a form of saving, the remittance behavior of these families is impressive.
To date, the banking industry has largely missed these market opportunities. Some banks are moving to offer fee-based transactional products that compete with AFS services.18 Conversely, some AFS providers plan to offer low-balance depository products for their loyal customers.19 However, the nation's largest banks have so far proved unwilling to meet the underserved population on its terms. Outside of the publicly led Bank On effort, few financial institutions have taken voluntary steps to encourage unbanked individuals to open accounts and build assets, even when legislation offers a path to do so. For example, the USA PATRIOT Act allows banks to accept alternative, foreign government-issued identification like the Mexican Matrícula Consular to open bank accounts for unbanked immigrants regardless of their legal status.20 In 2001, Wells Fargo Bank was a leader in accepting the alternative identification, opening more than 400,000 new accounts within 30 months. The Mexican government estimated that 4 million Matrícula Consular were issued in the United States as of 2004, a number that has likely doubled or tripled since then.21 Despite having the legal authority to do so, few financial institutions accept foreign government–issued identification other than passports, nor do they make other efforts to reach out to unbanked immigrants.
Read Full Section: Discussion and Next Steps (PDF)