Paycheck to Paycheck

By Carla Murphy Jun 24, 2014

Let’s get the conflict of interest out of the way. Financial services giant American Express bankrolled "Spent: Looking for Change," a new short documentary out this month about four Americans struggling and failing to do the basics: pay bills, save, start or care for their families. "A commercial that watches like a documentary," is how a New York Times reviewer describes it. But there’s no visible AmEx branding, no selling of any products and the credit appears 38 minutes into the 40-minute film narrated by Tyler Perry.

So with more than seven million YouTube views, what exactly is "Spent" selling? The idea that for low-income Americans, the financial services industries–both traditional banks and alternative lenders–are holding them back. But perhaps more subtly too, "Spent" sells another idea being brought home by fast food and other low-wage worker protests around the country: Working class and low income Americans just are not earning enough money.

"Spent" is a rare look at the nearly 70 million Americans residing in households that either don’t have a regular checking account (unbanked) or that rely on a combination of traditional checking and alternative services like payday or check cashing loans to get by (underbanked).

They include folks like Tiffany, an African-American nurse and single mom with an M.B.A. who left a good paying job in order to take care of a mother with cancer, fulltime. By the time she returned to the workforce, the recession hit and her good job had moved on. And then there’s Justin, a young white man done good whose past banking mistakes thwart attempts to buy a house and start a family. "People judge me for choices I’ve made," he says, "not knowing the options I’ve had."

The racial differences between the banked and unbanked are stark. Whereas eight percent of U.S. households have no bank account, according to a 2011 FDIC survey, the unbanked rate more than doubles for African-Americans (21.4 percent), Hispanics (20.1 percent), the foreign-born (22.2 percent)  and single-mother households (19.1 percent). Asian and white households have the lowest unbanked rate at 2.7 and 4 percent*, respectively.

So what’s wrong with being unbanked? For a paycheck-to-paycheck consumer, about the same as being banked: high fees and interest. (According to "Spent," Americans spend the same amount on financial services fees and interest–about $89 billion annually–as they do on groceries.) Those fees and interest pop up in both systems. For example at traditional banks, as "Spent" shows, low-income consumers are often hit with $35 overdraft fees or they’re forced to wait for their paychecks to clear. 

"Instead of making a basic checking account a low risk and low cost entry point into the financial system, banks offer high cost products that are not well suited for someone living paycheck to paycheck," says University of Michigan Law School professor Michael Barr, author of "No Slack: The Financial Lives of Low Income Americans."

"But we don’t have to make it so hard. We don’t have to make it so easy for people to make mistakes or for people to get into trouble with overdraft fees."

The alternative to overdraft fees, which easily add up to banks blacklisting those consumers? Going to the check cashing spot or a payday lender with 4 percent or higher interest rates in exchange for immediate cash. And while that’s comparatively a fix, in truth, it isn’t.

"Those loans are based upon this false idea that all somebody needs is a little bit of money to get to their next paycheck," Jonathan Mintz, CEO of Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund says in "Spent." "What’s happening is that people aren’t able to make ends meet. And getting a loan this pay period doesn’t make that problem go away, it only makes it a little bit worse the next pay period."

And so a deadly spiral begins–and it’s this frantic dash at the end of each pay period that many viewers will recognize in the four Americans featured. But "Spent" offers no clear solutions. Except for a mention of a few innovative financial solutions–like an Atlanta area firm that’s building a new type of credit score using on-time rent and monthly payments–the film is mainly a call for more consumer education and more important, a robust public conversation about how financial services differentially treat low- and moderate-income Americans as opposed to those middle class and higher Americans who can afford to keep bank minimums in their checking accounts.

The film’s strength is its focus on ordinary hardworking Americans, who’re often "buffeted by circumstances," like illness, layoff or divorce, says San Francisco-based attorney Christina Tetreault of Consumers Union. She thinks it’s a bit too optimistic however, about the ability of innovative financial products as the solution for low income consumers.

"One of the fundamental problems is that people don’t have enough money and no amount of access to low-cost mobile banking, for example, will solve that fundamental need," Tetreault says. "Although," she adds, "returning money to consumers that they’re otherwise paying in fees and interest is a great first step."

* Post has been updated.