Given the recession, it is not surprising that the number of bank branches in the United States decreased for the first time in 15 years last year. Closures have been particularly prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. As banks closed branches in poorer areas in response to shrinking profit margins, they opened new branches in wealthier ones. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of branches in areas with median household incomes below $50,000 fell by 396. During the same period, 82 new branches were added in neighborhoods where household income was above $100,000. Although the American Bankers’ Association has disputed the statistical significance of this data, citing the fact that there are over 95,000 bank branches nationwide, this does not disprove that there is a pattern.
For example, Birmingham-based Regions Financial, with a pool of only 2,000 branches, closed 107 branches in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods between 2008 and 2010, but closed only one in a high-income neighborhood. Similarly, Bank of America closed 25 branches in lower-income areas while opening 14 in wealthier areas. Citigroup also closed two branches in the poorest areas they served and opened three in the wealthiest. In fact, Citigroup has made very little effort to hide its intention to focus on wealthy markets. At a Wall Street investor conference last November, Manuel Medina-Mora, head of Global Consumer Business, revealed that Citigroup would expand its retail banking primarily in “affluent segments in major cities.”
Branch closures have been more prevalent in low income neighborhoods despite Community Reinvestment Act regulations in place since 1977, requiring financial institutions to serve poor and middle-class credit markets. These regulations also require financial institutions to notify regulators of branch closings. Federal regulators, however, seem to have turned a blind eye to bank branch closure patterns.
According to John Taylor, President of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “You don’t have to be a statistician to see that there’s a dual financial system in America, one for essentially middle- and high-income consumers, and another one for the people that can least afford it.” If bank branches continue to close in low-income neighborhoods, the options available to low-income families will continue to dwindle.
Even after the economy improves and the consequences of the mortgage bust subside, closures are likely to continue in the long run due to increased use of online and automated banking systems. Bank branches in lower-income neighborhoods will be at particular risk because new regulations, including those limiting overdraft fees, have stripped banks of major revenue sources earned from products marketed towards low-income clients. Without brick-and-mortar branches, efforts to foster a “culture of savings” in low-income neighborhoods may have very little impact. Additionally, bank closures in poor areas will most likely increase the use of predatory lenders (check-cashing centers, payday loan providers and pawnshops).
Thus, if regulators continue to be too timid to confront those banks violating the Community Reinvestment Act, if not in fact, then in spirit, access to mainstream credit will continue to be an uphill battle for poor families.
This post was coauthored by Melanie Jacobs.