Feb 20 '17

The Geography of Serving the Financially Vulnerable

“To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper -- maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all...They make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can't see and spaces we can't cover.”
-- Robert Harbison

Maps are not only good for helping us get from point A to B, they help us look at the world in a new way. This map of the 36 credit union testers in Filene’s Reaching Minority Households Incubator helps tells a story we otherwise wouldn’t see.

Financially vulnerable populations don’t solely reside in small pockets. The need for financial inclusion and opportunity is not an east coast problem or west coast problem. It's everyone and every state’s challenge. And fortunately, credit unions from across the U.S. and Canada have recognized the need in their communities and decided to do something about it. Let’s celebrate the geographic diversity of our Incubator testers.

The purpose of the Incubator is to find promising programs designed to close the financial service access gap for the un- and underbanked. These 36 institutions have stepped up to implement one of five programs and share their data with Filene so we can determine: Are these programs scalable, financially sustainable, desirable, and impactful to consumers?

No Divide: Rural vs. Urban

Each dot on the map spans rural communities to urban landscapes. When you think of the poor, you might picture the streets of New York City or Chicago. Yes, they are on the map. You might see smaller cities where local factories have left town and residents are struggling to make ends. Yes, they are on the map too. The un- and underbanked live in high rise apartments and family farms. They live in homeless shelters and the seemingly quiet suburban neighborhoods. Financial struggles do not discriminate geographically. The passion for solving the problem also, does not need to discriminate. Let’s again celebrate the wide range of communities being served by our Incubator testers, and countless other communities already being served by innovative financial service providers doing the hard work of serving those who are struggling financially.

It’s not about asset size, it’s about mindset

One attribute the map does not clearly show us, but is something credit unions should gain perspective on, is credit union asset size. Frequently, the asset size of credit unions comes up in conversations about serving the underserved. There is an outstanding myth that only the “big credit unions” have the resources necessary to offer programs geared to the financially vulnerable. In Filene’s experience, this is simply not true. In fact, in our Accessible Financial Services Incubator, we found that some of the smallest credit union testers outperformed their larger counterparts in issuing programs to their members.

Our largest tester is over $3 billion in assets, and the smallest has around $2 million. While additional resources can enhance your ability to serve this population, it is not a big credit union or small credit union responsibility. It is the responsibility of all credit unions to find ways to serve vulnerable populations. We have found that credit unions who have the mission, focus, passion, and unwavering dedication to serve this population are the most successful, regardless of asset size.

There are two other elements of this story that are not visible on our map: They are Visa and The Ford Foundation. The map begins to tell the story of credit union leaders who have took a stand and said, “this is my issue, I won’t stand for it and I’m going to do something about it.” Visa and The Ford Foundation have done the same. Their commitment to financial inclusion has made Filene’s Reaching Minority Households Incubator possible through their generous financial support. But more importantly, adding their voice to the story adds new “sights to see” and thus new conclusions about the challenge of financially vulnerable populations.

Financial inclusion and equipping financially vulnerable populations with the tools they need to pursue opportunities and build a better life is everyone’s issue, and call to action. I hope our simple map and this blog have given you some perspective to noodle on. And I ask, will you add your name to the map of those fighting to give financial access to those who desperately need it? Let me know your thoughts!