ByJeanne C. Marra
Bank-On Save-Up St. Louis, a community-based financial education and public awareness campaign, recently launched in the St. Louis metro community. The initiative has set a goal to open 20,000 new bank accounts for unbanked St. Louis metro residents over the next two years, and to maintain or grow 80 percent of those accounts.
The St. Louis effort is modeled after Bank On initiatives in other cities and is designed to increase access to mainstream financial products and services among low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals. The Community Development department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is partnering with campaign organizers by serving as the official data collector and will report its findings quarterly to sponsors of the campaign, the St. Louis Regional Unbanked Task Force (Task Force).
According to Alex Fennoy, director of community development at Midwest BankCentre and co-chair of the effort, the initiative began almost three years ago, after the first of two FDIC studies revealed the high number of unbanked households in the St. Louis area. After learning that 88,000 households—7.6 percent—in the St. Louis metro were unbanked, and that St. Louis ranked first in the nation with the highest percentage of unbanked African-Americans, a number of financial institutions and community partners formed the Task Force. A subsequent study conducted by the FDIC in 2011 and released last fall echoed the need, revealing that 111,000 St. Louis metro households—9.7 percent—do not have bank accounts. African-Americans comprise 33.9 percent of those households, making St. Louis third in the nation for unbanked African-Americans.
The Task Force formed a steering committee to study the issue and began a formal process two years ago to identify ways to address the needs of the unbanked. This group and each of its subcommittees are comprised equally of bank and non-bank partners—what Fennoy calls the yin and the yang. “The process has been a true collective, collaborative, group effort,” he said.
“We looked at every national initiative that’s out there. We had to decide: Do we create something ourselves, or is there already something that makes sense,” explained Fennoy. Lisa Potts, case manager at People’s Community Action Corp., and coordinator for the Task Force, added, “We brought in a lot of experts who had touched not only Bank On [programs] but also other asset-building initiatives to see what was best for our community.”
Both agree that the decision of the steering committee to adopt a Bank On effort in St. Louis was ideal because of its promotion of low-cost or no-cost accounts, low minimal dollar amounts to open accounts, free online banking services, and safeguards to help customers avoid overdraft and other fees. The collaboration component with community partners made this effort a great fit as well.
Today, Bank-On Save-Up St. Louis is comprised of 18 participating financial institutions and more than 40 community partners.
Fennoy said that enrollment in a participating Bank-On Save-Up account will help LMI families save money by avoiding costly alternative financial providers, such as check-cashing companies and payday lenders. By using bank accounts instead of these alternative sources, families can save hundreds of dollars annually—as much as $1,200. He also stressed the importance of the savings component of the Bank-On Save-Up effort.
“In the meetings we held with both financial institutions and nonprofits, they kept telling us that getting a bank account wasn’t the be-all, end-all,” Fennoy said. “That’s why we wanted the Save-Up component, because you’re starting to build assets, and that’s critical when moving from the alternative financial services into the mainstream. You’ve got to build assets, even if it’s $5 a month. Start saving.”
Financial institutions will partner with community-based organizations to engage in outreach activities and financial education opportunities that campaign coordinators consider critical to the success of the initiative. Classes and training sessions will be available to participants free of charge and will cover a variety of topics, including the benefits of mainstream banking, savings tips and opportunities, and debt-management strategies.
St. Louis Fed Community Development Officer Yvonne Sparks considers the Bank-On Save-Up initiative important for the community not only with regard to economic outcomes, but also for its potential social impact. “At the Fed, we have worked with Bank On initiatives in other cities and have learned that the empowerment that comes with using mainstream financial services has a widespread and generational impact on communities. Research has documented that those who use bank accounts and learn to save are more likely to graduate high school, are less likely to be incarcerated and will more likely pursue higher education than those who do not. This is not just a financial issue; it has ramifications in the community as well. I’m delighted that this effort is being driven by the community, and that so many financial institutions are taking on this role.”
For more information on Bank-On Save-Up St. Louis, visit www.getbankednow.org.