By: Alex Ferrieras
August 13, 2012
If you've always had a bank account, it's hard to imagine life without writing a check, hitting the ATM or swiping a debit card at the grocery store.
But for more than a million Californians, life without a bank account is the norm. They're known as the "unbanked": those who don't own a traditional bank account, either checking or savings.
Instead, they typically stash their cash at home and often rely on high-cost services that provide payday loans or check-cashing.
For the past several years, the state's "Bank on California" program has been working to change that, offering free or low-cost checking accounts at banks and credit unions to those who normally wouldn't qualify. Recently, Golden 1, the state's largest credit union, launched a similar program to aid the unbanked.
"Without a bank account, everything is more difficult: paying rent, your utilities ..." said Alana Golden, spokeswoman for the state Department of Financial Institutions, which oversees the Bank on California program.
Since December 2008, more than 214,000 free or low-cost "Bank On" accounts have been opened in California. In addition, the program conducted more than 2,000 financial education workshops for low- and moderate-income families.
"The hope is they'll open a checking account to pay their bills, but also to start saving," Golden added. "It's an important step in becoming financially independent."
Estimates vary, but in a 2009 study, the FDIC said more than 1 million California households are unbanked. Nationally, it pegged about 9 million households with 17.1 million adults as unbanked. Statistically, they are younger, less educated and lower-income families.
Since first launched as a pilot project in San Francisco in 2006, the Bank on California program has grown to eight communities statewide. More than 30 banks participate, including Bank of America, Bank of the West, Wells Fargo, and SAFE and Schools Financial credit unions.
Golden said the Department of Financial Institutions is actively looking for more financial partners in rural areas, as well as major metropolitan regions like San Diego. Each of the eight programs has a coalition of financial partners, nonprofits and local government agencies that offer the starter bank accounts, as well as financial education workshops.
Typically, when consumers apply for a checking account, the financial institution runs them through a scoring system that rates their risk, based on any banking history of overdrafts, etc. If the score is too low, the bank typically denies them an account.
Programs like Golden 1's "SmartStart" accounts are designed to meet the intent of the Bank On program. "They're to provide a checking account for people who have been locked out for past performance issues or locked out because they don't have checking history," said Scott Ingram, Golden 1's vice president of marketing.
For now, Golden 1 isn't officially part of the Bank On program, but has tailored its program to meet the requirements and expects to join it a year from now. Like Bank On, SmartStart requires no minimum balance to open an account, charges no monthly fees and comes with a debit card. There also is free online and mobile banking service.
Notably, there is no overdraft protection: If a consumer tries to swipe the debit card without sufficient funds in the account, the transaction is denied.
"That's key to helping people avoid getting into trouble," Ingram said.
Why is a bank account considered so important?
"Checking accounts give you the ability to fit into society just like anybody else," said Ingram. Without an account, "the only options these folks have are check-cashing services and payday lenders," which often charge higher fees for short-term loans. "It's a real vicious cycle to break out of," he noted.
It can also be dangerous.
"Families without accounts don't have a safe place to keep their money," notes the website of Bank On San Francisco, which piloted the first program in 2006 to reach that city's estimated 50,000 unbanked households. "They walk around with wads of cash in their pockets or keep it at home in a coffee can. Robberies are more prevalent around check cashers, especially on payday."
And in the event of a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina or wildfires, unbanked individuals can be particularly vulnerable, seeing their savings washed away or burned up with the rest of their belongings.
According to the FDIC study, the most common reasons cited by the unbanked for not having an account include: not enough money to qualify; don't see a need; fees and minimum balances too high; too many bounced checks.
Despite not widely promoting its SmartStart program, Golden 1 said it has opened more than 1,850 accounts at various branches statewide.
"It exceeds our expectations," said Ingram, who said the response indicates a clear need for these types of starter accounts.
For BofA, which participates in seven Bank On programs in California as well as those in other states, they "simply provide a way for the unbanked to save money, build wealth and work their way towards economic wellness," said BofA spokeswoman Colleen Haggerty in an email.
Nevertheless, it'll likely take some persuading to entice many of California's unbanked into the world of checkbooks and ATMs.
Gina Alvarado, 44, used to have a checking account, but the monthly fees, bounced check charges and unexpected debits hit her hard.
"They can take your whole paycheck and then how do you feed your kids?" said the widowed mother of four, standing outside the Money Mart, a check-cashing office on Broadway.
When she lost her job as a home health aide, Alvarado closed her bank account. "If I had a regular paycheck, it'd be really cool to have a bank account. But if you're only cashing a check once a month, this works out."
THE "UNBANKED" AT A GLANCE
--The "unbanked" have no checking or savings account. (The "underbanked" have a bank account, but also rely on payday lenders, pawn shops or check-cashing services.)
--Roughly 9 million U.S. households (7.7 percent) are unbanked; 21 million (17.7 percent) are underbanked.
--54 percent of black households and 43 percent of Hispanic households are unbanked or underbanked, compared with 18 percent of white households.
--In Sacramento, 8.5 percent of residents are unbanked, compared with 7.7 percent statewide
--In California, one in five low-income residents does not have a checking account; nearly half do not have a savings account
--Reasons for not having bank accounts: Fear of hidden fees, distrust, inconvenience, ID requirements, hours/locations, lack of knowledge, previous banking problems
Source: www.BankOn.org, based on 2009 FDIC survey