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Many consumers still struggle to access financial services

But a survey suggests discrimination is less of a reason than in the past

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While consumers often have complaints about banks and other financial services companies, a recent poll of consumers suggests discrimination is not very high on the list of grievances.

The poll, conducted for the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), found that only 16% of respondents reported perceived bias or discrimination in dealings with financial institutions. Those reporting discrimination most often cited age bias, as well as their lack of assets. Others attributed the reason for bias to their identity or personal circumstances.

“While the high-level results of this survey are positive, the percentage who report feeling ostracized by the financial services sector represents millions of U.S. adults who are unable to participate fairly in the economic system because of their gender, age, race, or some other reason tied to socio-economic circumstances,” said Billy Hensley, president and CEO of NEFE. 

‘Unbanked’

When people feel discrimination they are less likely to avail themselves of a financial institution’s services. That can lead to a group of consumers who have no banking relationship, known as “unbanked.”

Aaron Schumm, CEO and Founder at Vestwell, says there are several institutional and societal factors that might cause a person to be unbanked, especially African Americans.

“In just retirement alone, we can see that only 44% of Black Americans have retirement savings accounts, compared to 65% of white Americans, according to the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances,” Schumm told ConsumerAffairs.

Schumm says businesses have a big role to play in improving employees’ financial future, not only by offering retirement savings plans but also with financial education. He cites the 2021 PwC Employee Financial Wellness Survey that concluded that “employers can further support inclusion by making sure that any financial advice or education offered through the workplace is explicitly paired with thoughtful services, products, and opportunities."

The emergence of fintech firms

The unbanked population swelled in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when many banks unilaterally closed customers’ bank accounts if they were perceived to be a risk. Many of the experts we consulted say emerging fintech firms, as well as online banks, provided relief.

“One of the leading reasons that folks don't have a bank account is because they believe that the fees are too high,” said Richard Gardner, CEO at Modulus, a fintech firm. “Financial technologies can help those who are unbanked, particularly in lowering fees. As technology continues to infiltrate the financial sector, look for continued lower costs, as well as new ways to make banking more convenience driven.”

Erik Poch, managing director of Digital at Ria Money Transfer, believes technology overcomes many barriers that discourage consumers from interacting with the financial services industry. He notes that mobile wallets can take the place of a bank account, making it easy to save money and pay bills. But he says for people not ready to embrace technology, feelings of discrimination can persist.

“The challenge is that lots of people are not ready to give up cash so, for now, to be truly inclusive you need to have a strong physical presence so that a transaction can be initiated using either cash or digital and offer both options for a payout as well,” Poch said. 

Poch says the shift to a cash-free world is happening, but the first step is “putting access to financial services within everyone’s reach.”

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