Greg Mitchell is the President and CEO at First Tech Federal Credit Union.
Financial inclusion has never been more important, and as leaders of the institutions guiding its structure, I believe we must lead the charge to serve as many people as possible.
This is no easy task, especially as society pushes toward a digitized financial landscape, it is easier than ever to get caught up in the convenience of a “one-tap” world. However, it is also important to remember that such systems continue to divide those with reliable internet and access to financial resources, and those without.
The well-rounded pursuit of financial inclusion must be coupled with the expansion of educational resources and community support. If strategically, persistently and equitably implemented, financial literacy initiatives drive more informed financial decisions across socioeconomic statuses. That’s a “win” for everyone!
Financial Literacy Programs
According to a report by the Federal Reserve, 22% of Americans are unbanked or underbanked. Leaders committed to environmental, social and governance (ESG) and financial inclusion should agree that everyone—regardless of income—deserves bank services, access to budgeting tools and persistent reinforcement on how to use the tools to support financial security.
According to a national report card, 30% of U.S. states received grades of D or F for financial literacy among high school students. Financial institutions, school districts, major corporations and philanthropists can and must flip the “F” to an “A” by developing and consistently delivering content to bridge this gap.
Research from Happy Money demonstrates that the collection and maintenance of just $1,000 in cash reserves materially lessen the level of financial PTSD—or the intense feeling of financial stress—consumers experience. Once people learn to build these reserves, they can change spending behaviors.
As one of five kids growing up in a loving but low-income household where money was always a worry, I—and millions of others—can share stories of what life is like at the bottom, and what can happen when organizations or individuals reach out to help. Without people who cared (in my case a schoolteacher), I likely would be financially illiterate and less able to deliver economic benefits to the broader society. Financial leaders can and must do more to bridge the gap!
Financial Wellness Tools
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, concerns over financial wellness plague Americans’ minds more than those of physical well-being. According to a study conducted by eMoney in 2020, 68% of respondents reported stress related to their financial wellness, compared to 50% citing physical wellness stress. This trend is contextualized by further data: 62% of respondents reported that Covid-19 worsened their financial situation. There is a clear need for resources tailored to address the financial uncertainty of the past two years.
Credit health is one of the areas that I work on with members the most. For many Americans, the concept of their credit score is both foreign and terrifying; it looms ominously in the back of their minds like an uncontrollable monster. These fears are in part valid. Your credit can affect your ability to get a job, your access to housing and the amount you will pay for a loan.
Credit is also rooted in historical bias that alienates many groups from accessing affordable credit. However, your credit score is like looking at your checking account statement; the number reflects past decisions. Much like sticking to your budget, change requires frequent checks for progress and rethinking of current habits. Hiding from your bank statements and following previous ways will only result in disappointment. Recent efforts by major banks, mono-line card issuers, credit bureaus and others promote real-time access to credit scores and behavioral tools.
These efforts, combined with lower spending levels, caused average credit scores to rise to a 13-year high of 695 as of the most recent reporting date. Moreover, the industry is seeing increased use of sites like First Tech’s Financial Wellness Center that offers coaching on how to build and protect credit scores, pay down debt and general financial education.
I see an opportunity for banks to deliver life-enriching financial services to historically disenfranchised borrowers by using machine learning innovations and readily available digital data to better understand risk. Digitized banking facilitates a shift away from former credit systems that were entrenched in bias and burdened by reporting lags toward a future characterized by second chances and equal opportunity.
Many years ago, Henry Ford noted, to paraphrase, “It is well enough that people of our nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.” While I think his comments may have been more cynical than forward-looking, he was right.
Financial leaders have an opportunity to create a constructive revolution by eliminating barriers like traditional banking hours, English-only service, complicated language in applications and loan documents, and other barriers that drive some of our most vulnerable citizens underground.
In the modern world, people deserve access to their funds and advice on their schedules. Evolving digital solutions, such as E-deposit, provide convenient and personalized member interactions. These changes help make banking accessible to all. While we can expect to see ongoing disruption in the digital space with increasing access for the under-banked, we need to ensure that these good people are served by ethical organizations that consider their financial interests, while keeping unscrupulous predators out of this space. Federal regulators can help by actively promoting the use of new digital tools, service delivery channels and underwriting tools that meet the needs of this important segment.
We all maintain a moral obligation to use the gifts that we’ve been given to improve and enrich others. While pure capitalists and profiteers may disagree with this sentiment, the truth is, when everyone is informed, engaged and contributing to society and the broader economy, all legitimate organizations grow and profit.
Join in the conversation and take action to drive financial literacy, financial competency and wellness. This is a challenge that is worthy of serious attention and rich in its potential to drive growth and improve lives.