Banking Not a Top Priority in Many Underserved NYC Communities

About 360,000 residents in the city don’t have bank accounts. The city and many local banks are trying to change that.

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By Margie Merritt

New York State Officials are trying to provide the large number of New Yorkers without bank accounts access through IDNYC, city-issued identity cards, but a lot of low income residents say they aren’t interested.

Officials from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Department of Consumer Affairs, and New York City Housing Authority met at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in mid-September to launch a new pop-up registration site for IDNYC cards. Cardholders are now able to use this card as a primary form of identification at 12 local banks to sign up for accounts. City and bank officials want to get the word out about the change.

The Department of Consumer Affairs considers more than one in four households in New York City to be “underbanked,” meaning the neighborhoods they live in don’t have enough banks to meet the needs of the public in the area. The majority of these households are found in low to middle income areas. Officials hoped that now that a dozen local banks would accept IDNYC to open accounts that residents in these areas would start a conversation about banking. It isn’t going to be that easy.

“I don’t believe in banks,” Craig Mack, a Red Hook worker and resident said, with evident pride. “If the system shuts down what are you going to do? How are you going to get your money?”

The Department of Consumer Affairs reported that as of last year 360,000 households in the city have no bank accounts at all, and 780,000 have accounts but still rely on other places like check cashing stores to handle their banking needs.

“People that don’t have an excess of income don’t believe that an account will be that helpful,” said Rafael Monge-Portar, President of the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union, one of the 12 banks accepting IDNYC.

Many of the workers at the event said they had no plans to get a bank account and that a check cashing facility would work just fine.   Some, however, didn’t like the idea of only using a check cashing store.

“I think it’s silly to have to pay to get my money,” said Kia Robinson, a Brownsville native. “That’s just wild.”

Alex Tabor, a branch manager at the Amalgamated Bank in Brooklyn, explained that he has to teach his clients that there is a lot more to a bank than just a checking and savings account. He holds monthly classes to explain life insurance, investments, money markets, and annuities to his customers.

The classes have helped in his area, he says, and Amalgamated has opened the largest number of new accounts with IDNYC cardholders in the city, with 526 to date. Now his branch, along with other local banks, is offering free financial literacy courses in multiple different languages to teach residents all that a bank can do for them.

“I have many people that are interested in the fact that they can utilize an ATM card to get cash immediately,” said Tabor.

Many residents said they don’t understand why they would give their money to someone help them save it or to pay their bills when they could do it themselves.

“We gather up for the wet days. We came up knowing we have to save,” says John Sattaur, originally from the West Indies.

Even though banking in America has been around since the 18th century, for some residents,  the idea of having to use computerized machines to access their cash seems just too new.

“When the world was discovered there were no machines. We lived off the land. There were no ATMs,” said Mack, the worker from Red Hook. “So what do we need them for?”

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