Growing up in the Brewerytown neighborhood with a population that is more than 95 percent black, Michael Banks said there was one bank branch on the outskirts of the entire 19121 ZIP code but 19 check-cashing centers.
“If you go to places like Chestnut Hill or Roxborough, it’s the inverse,” said Banks, now president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
“If you live at 27th and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, it’s tough to get to a bank. So people choose convenience over the fees [they pay at check cashing operations]. I understand the hesitancy that banks might have, but it doesn’t mean there are not opportunities for banks in those neighborhoods. The check-cashing places are not closing because there are business opportunities there. There is risk but with that is opportunity.”
In the 10 Philadelphia ZIP codes where the population is at least 75 percent black, FDIC data as of June 30, 2016, shows there were just 23 bank branches and $1.2 billion in combined deposits. Conversely, in the 10 ZIP codes with the smaller percentage of African-American residents, there were 62 branches and $14.2 billion in deposits, though that number is skewed by $11 billion in deposits in Old City (19106) because of a corporate deposit-heavy Wells Fargo location at 6th and Chestnut streets.
Since peaking at the height of the recession in 2008, the combination of heightened regulatory compliance costs and the growth of online and mobile banking has caused banks to cut their local branch footprint by 14 percent.
With so few bank branches in black majority neighborhoods, cash cashers, credit unions and online options have tried to fill the void.
Lisa Servon, a professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania and former dean at The New School, recently wrote a book called “The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives,” which claims that the mainstream bank and credit system has abandoned middle- and lower-class consumers in favor of servicing only the wealthiest. As research for the book, she worked as a teller at RiteCheck, a check-cashing business in the South Bronx in New York City and as a payday lender in Oakland, Calif., along the way picking up stories from alternative bankers and their customers.
At RiteCheck, Servon worked along side two people who had been employees there for 10 years. She noticed that most customers were regulars, estimating that tellers knew about 80 percent of them by name, with most being blue-collar workers or self-employed. They would cash checks and pay bills right away. She would often see late notices on bills, so customers were willing to pay the 2 percent fee to cash the checks and the $1.50 to pay each bill.
“It seems like a lot but it’s better than not having bills paid because you have to wait several days for the check to clear,” Servon said. “A lot of people are making rational decisions when they use a check casher. They are willing to pay the fee so they can pay their bills or avoid late fees.”
Low-income customers choose check cashers for cost, transparency and services provided, Servon said. It is no surprise the low-income customers pay a large percentage of bank overdraft fees.
“They felt like banks try to trick them more,” Servon said. “They have all these fees and some are sort of hidden and they cannot afford them. They feel that the check cashers are more transparent. And they don’t just come in to cash check and pay bills. It’s a place they can go for help. Someone might come in with a jury duty notice and ask what to do.”
There is also the matter of financial literacy, something that plagues young people and schools all over but is particularly acute in minority communities. Michael Banks would like to see financial institutions sponsor financial literacy programs at local schools.
“Not just in a few schools or on special occasions,” Banks said. “I would like to see them develop a relationship with the school district and have specific banks work with specific schools.”
Stephen Briggs, community development manager at Wells Fargo, agreed that education is a key to helping minority and low-income retail customers understand the benefits to opening a bank account as opposed to using check-cashing services. Wells Fargo, he said, has offered educational programs for people ranging from third-graders to adults.
There are also fewer options in minority communities as it pertains to the type of banks available. Save for North Philadelphia locations for Beneficial Bank and Bank of Princeton, the remaining 21 branches in the aforementioned majority black ZIP codes are operated by six big banks. Citizens Bank (seven) has the most, followed by PNC (six), Wells Fargo (four), Bank of America (two), TD Bank and Santander Bank (one each). None of those banks are based in the Philadelphia region.
In the majority white neighborhoods, there are more than 20 different banks with branches, many of them community banks.
“You have to understand the communities that you represent,” said Banks, a former Citigroup employee. “You cannot have one-size-fits-all policies. Otherwise, you cannot take advantage of business opportunities. If you are not reflecting the community you are serving, that doesn’t help with diversity. With the big banks, sometimes you don’t feel like you have a voice at the table.”