For people with bank accounts and credit cards, the proliferation of check cashing stores must seem a bit of an oddity. The high-fee services prompt questions like who actually uses them and why don’t they just go to a bank? But behind those ubiquitous shops lays a stark reality: one third of Americans live on the margins of our financial system. They are the underbanked or unbanked, and without banking services at their disposal, they pay dearly to access simple financial transactions like cashing checks or paying bills.
"There’s a saying that it’s expensive to be poor. And it’s sort of ironic that the less money you have the more it costs you to manage and move it," says Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth, American Express, explaining that banking fees, minimum balance requirements, and inaccessible banking infrastructure has forced many Americans into the hands of fringe financial institutions. "It shouldn’t have to be that way. Technology can provide tools and services that fundamentally recreate what was traditional banking."
For Schulman, this notion of financial exclusion is an important one. While Amex is known for its exclusive credit cards, for the last two years the company has made significant moves toward creating technology to support financial inclusion: in 2012 it launched Bluebird, a checking and debit alternative issued by American Express and available at Walmart and online, as well as pre-paid card Serve. And by creating a tech platform that fundamentally has the power of a bank branch, but with no strings attached, the company was able to, as Schulman says, "turn American Express from an exclusive brand to the mass affluent, to an inclusive brand that creates a value proposition that cuts through all the time wasted that the new middle class spends on these services."
Now, the company is taking its pledge to help correct the trend of financial exclusion even further. In an announcement made at SXSW, Amex has committed to a financial inclusion initiative that will fund promising startups focused on financial inclusion, and revealed it will launch a Financial Innovation Lab in June, which will sponsor research focused on financial inclusion, with a view to bringing new products to life from that research.
These initiatives are based on the understanding that an entire ecosystem around the notion of financial inclusion is required to make a positive improvement. "No one company can do this," says Schulman. "It has to be a combination of public and private sectors all coming together to face one of the biggest issues that faces our country and countries around the world. The amount of fees that the unbanked and underbanked pay is 10% of their disposable income, which is the same amount they spend on food. Imagine if you could turn loose almost $100 billion back into the economy?"
To raise the profile and scope of the problem of financial exclusion, Amex is producing a documentary with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman), a teaser for which was just released ahead of the film's June release. Spent: Looking for Change follows the stories of several hopeful but struggling middle class people navigating an antiquated system unable to meet their needs. From the young woman working multiple jobs to make ends meet while following her career aspirations, to the nurse who left her job to care for her ill mother, only to find that the recession and a bad decision to use a non-banking financial institution has left her on the brink of ruin, the film is meant to personalize and highlight an issue most people are unaware of.
"We have really tried to use technology to solve these problems, but we want to call attention to it because there’s so much more that can be done. With the film we want to magnify it and have a call to action across the country, because it’s a solvable problem and technology can play a big role in solving it," says Schulman.
"We're looking to start a movement and conversation around all of that, and then we can support it with a whole ecosystem focused on it. If you try to do it in a soundbite, it just looks like a commercial. You can’t communicate the magnitude of the issue with a soundbite. It happens with a story."
Sidebar sources: 1) 2011 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households
2) Matt Fellowes and Mia Mabanta, "Banking on Wealth: America’s New Retail Banking Infrastructure and Its Wealth-Building Potential," Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008.
3) 2011 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households
4) Bloomberg census and federal banking data compiled, May 2013
5) CFSI, November 2012 Market Sizing Report; Pew Charitable Trust Report June 2012