By Claudia Buck
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
SACRAMENTO -- 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
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," Ingram said. 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.
Source: www.BankOn.org, based on 2009 FDIC survey