Same to you, buddy

Same to you, buddy September 7, 2009

Wal-mart is now advertising a new "low" rate for cashing checks of only $3.

Any such rate seems like it's too much, since the check is your money, and paying $3 for your own money is a rip-off. But, as Wal-mart points out, $3 is a lot less than many of their competitors charge for this same dubious service. Those check-cashing competitors, Wal-mart says, can charge as much as $8 per check.

Wal-mart's TV ad for this check-cashing service actually underestimates the savings this could mean for their marks customers.  A fresh-faced young couple tells us how happy they are to be using Wal-mart's $3-a-check service instead of the $8 alternative. The husband holds up a calculator and tells us this saves them about $200 a year. With both of them earning a paycheck every two weeks, that's actually more like $250 a year — and that $50 difference would be substantial for the annual budget of a working-class couple outside the fringes of the banking system.

The same quick and dirty arithmetic also lets us easily calculate the annual cost of check-cashing for this couple even at Wal-mart prices: $150 a year.

That $150 is a poverty tax — a fee paid by the poor because they are poor.

But then calling it a poverty tax isn't accurate. It's a poverty surcharge, not a tax. If it were a tax, then the couple in Wal-mart's ad would eventually see some kind of indirect benefit from that $150. Taxes go toward civilization — national defense, highways, sewer systems, health care, police, food safety, clean water, fighting wildfires, developing flu vaccines, etc. And taxes are part of the social contract assented to by everyone who participates in that civilization. But this $150 poverty surcharge doesn't help to fund any of those things and it isn't part of any social contract. It simply lines the pockets of the Walton family and the rest of Wal-mart's shareholders. The poor families paying this surcharge receive no benefit — direct or indirect. All they get in exchange is access to their own money. This $150-a-year surcharge is simply a transfer of wealth from them to much richer people, a direct, you-have-no-say transfer of at least $3 subtracted from every paycheck.

So as nice as it is that this couple is "saving" $250 a year by cashing their checks at Wal-mart instead of the even-more-exploitative competition, it'd be nicer still if they could save an additional $150 a year by not having to pay to cash their paychecks at all.

There's the rub. To cash your paycheck without paying a fee, you need a bank account, and for working-class people, a bank account costs a great deal more than $150 a year.

People who don't realize that — who don't appreciate the enormous, steady cost of a marginal bank account — tend to think that those who rely on check-cashing agencies are just being stupid and wasteful. The couple in the Wal-mart ad, for example, who are paying $150 a year to cash their paychecks could instead open a $100 no-fee savings account that would allow them to cash their paychecks for free. That account would only "cost" them $100 — but even that money would still be theirs, sitting in their savings account and even earning a modest rate of interest.

The problem, though, is that such no-fee accounts are money-losers for the banks themselves. A $100 account with no fees costs the bank more in paperwork and tellers' time than it's worth. In the long-run, such accounts can help depositors develop savings habits and savings balances, developing into the sort of customers banks can and do make money from. But neither the executives nor the shareholders of the bank are interested in that kind of long-run — particularly not when, in the short run, they're losing money on these tiny accounts.

So seeing no incentive to provide such low-balance, no-fee accounts that would allow our young couple to cash their checks without a fee, the bank will instead try to push them into something more lucrative — into the kind of account that generates a steady stream of nickel-and-dime revenue from ATM fees, minimum-balance charges, late fees and, above all, "overdraft protection" charges.

Last year, U.S. banks collected about $36 billion in overdraft protection fees. This year, they expect to transfer about $38.5 billion out of customers' accounts in the form of such fees.

$38.5 billion. $105 million every day. $4.4 million every hour. $73,250 every minute. More than $1,200 a second. Transferred directly from the poor to the rich.

$38.5 billion.

I keep repeating that figure because I can't quite manage to grasp it. The public, obviously, can't grasp it either. Open your window and inhale — smell any torches or smoke from the barricades? Turn on CNBC, Are bankers using fake names and requiring their faces to be distorted? are the bankers still using their real names and allowing their faces to appear onscreen without electronic distortion? No? Then the public still doesn't yet appreciate the meaning of this figure.*

$38.5 billion taken directly out of people's bank accounts.


I'm not suggesting that everyone who works at a bank that extracts these billions from customers through an overdraft protection scheme is, necessarily, a Bad Person due to working there. And I'm perfectly willing to allow them the chance to defend themselves. I am, in fact, eager to hear their explanation — to hear them describe the actions they've taken to protest this policy and the reasons why such actions have, thus far, not succeeded. My point here is only that such a defense, such an explanation, is required of them if they want to continue interacting on polite terms with the rest of us — if they want to drink in our bars or attend our churches or walk down our streets without parents clutching small children by the hand and dragging them aside and saying, "Come over here, honey, we don't want to go near the banker."

That, at a minimum, is what $38.5 billion a year means.

Yesverywellbut, say those comfortably removed from the economic margins, such fees can be avoided through responsible account management. And the supercilious and dim yesbuts raising this objection will go on to point out that they, personally, have never had to pay such a fee. And they will take this as evidence of their own superior responsibility and their oh-so-superior superiority too all of those stupid working class people stuck at the margins for whom one flat tire or one sick child or one unanticipated $10 expense can incur a cascading series of late fees and overdraft charges and other forms of emergency short-term credit that can easily exceed the $150 that Wal-mart graciously offers to extract from their paychecks each year.

And so …

Crud. Now I've gotten all worked up and forgotten where I'd intended to go with this whole discussion.

The point here, I suppose, is that check-cashing fees may be an exploitative scam run by sleazeballs, but that they may turn out to be a more prudent option for the working poor than the even-more exploitative scam run by the more mainstream, but sleazier sleazeballs of the banking industry.

I should probably wrap up with some practical sort of action steps or something, so OK then:

1. We need a viable community banking option for the working poor, a place where they can cash their paychecks and maybe even someday build their savings without being subject to fees and overdraft protection rackets. We needn't get into the details here of the policies the FDIC and Fed could put in place to protect and encourage such banking options, only to mention that such policies are a Good Thing.

2. $38.5 billion. Seriously. The executives and shareholders of those banks ought to be flipped off, constantly, by everyone they encounter, all day long, from the moment they leave the house in the morning until the moment they return home. Even in church. Especially in church. From the pulpit, in fact. Nonviolent social change doesn't need to be genteel.

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* (Clearer wording courtesy of David S. Thank you.)

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