NEW YORK (AP) — The number of Americans who do not have a bank account fell to a record low last year, as the proliferation of online-only banks and an improving economy is bringing more Americans into the traditional financial system.
A new report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issued Tuesday found that 4.5% of Americans — representing approximately 5.9 million households — were without a bank account in 2021. That’s the lowest level since the FDIC started tracking the data in 2009 and down from 5.4% of Americans in the 2019 survey data.
The decline in unbanked households may partially be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. States and the federal government distributed trillions of dollars in stimulus to Americans after COVID-19 shut down the U.S. economy in March 2020. The benefit programs largely needed a bank account to send the funds quickly to those impacted.
“During the pandemic, consumers opened bank accounts to access relief funds and other benefits quickly and securely,” said FDIC Acting Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg, in a statement.
But the FDIC attributed most of the improvement to the stronger economy in 2021, as the coronavirus pandemic restrictions largely expired and there were low levels of unemployment.
Black and Hispanic households still remain much more likely to not have a bank account, although those figures are improving. Roughly 11.3% of Black households are without a bank account, down from 13.8% two years earlier. Among Hispanic households, that figure declined to 9.3% from 12.2%.
The primary reasons for why someone would choose to be unbanked were largely unchanged from previous surveys. One in five unbanked households said not having enough money to maintain an account was the main reason they went without one — a sign that being unbanked remains an economic inclusion issue.
The FDIC started tracking unbanked Americans in 2009. In the 2011 data, the number of Americans who were unbanked rose significantly as a result of the Great Recession. While Americans kept their bank accounts through the coronavirus recession, there is a chance the number of unbanked Americans could rise in the future if inflation continues to damage the economy and unemployment increases.
Other households had privacy and trust issues regarding banks. Major companies like Amazon have been tracking consumer data via credit card usage for a while now, but banks are taking advantage of this data too.
Americans outside the traditional financial system face numerous obstacles with their daily finances, which is why policymakers push so hard to get unbanked households to open a savings or checking account. Check-cashing services, utility payment services, rent payments without a bank account often come with fees, money that a person with a bank account would not be subject to.
New immigrants and refugees are also among the unbanked. Jhuma Acharya, a former refugee from Bhutan and a case manager with Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, said he sees an increase in clients calling him about businesses that won’t accept their cash.
“I have never worked with any single (new) refugee who said they have used a credit card in their life,” Acharya said.
Acharya said clients usually take a minimum of five months to build enough credit with banks in the United States to sign up for an account. In the interim, Acharya said they try to educate clients on how to build up to a debit card and use their Electronic Benefits Transfer card.
There’s also been an increasing number of businesses that no longer accept cash as a form of payment, an issue that several state legislatures have started to address.
Some states and cities mandated cash be accepted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, San Francisco and Philadelphia. However, at least seven states have passed such bills since the pandemic began, mainly in response to the growing number of contactless businesses following CDC recommendations to limit cash use for fear of spreading the virus.
Delaware, New York, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all passed bills mandating that businesses accept cash, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than a dozen states have introduced cash-mandate bills since 2020. At least three bills in Republican-majority states Florida, Mississippi and North Dakota have died in committee, as well as two bills in mostly Democrat-held New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
In Ohio, State Sen. Louis Blessing III, R-Colerain Township, introduced a bill during the 2021 legislative session that would open businesses up to lawsuits if they do not accept cash as payment. Blessing cited protecting immigrant and impoverished communities as a driver of the bill, as well as safeguarding consumer data privacy and the elderly, who are more likely to use cash.
The bill is still currently pending in the Ohio legislature.
“I think if this bill were put to a vote, every Democrat in the state would vote yes on it,” said Blessing, who has received pushback mostly from his Republican counterparts in the Republican-held state.
The survey also found that the percentage of what are known as underbanked households — those who have a bank account but still use high-cost financial services like check cashing, pawn shops, payday loans, and remittances — also declined.
The FDIC also found that roughly half of all American households used a non-bank payment service such as CashApp, Venmo or PayPal in 2021.
AP Ohio Statehouse Reporter Samantha Hendrickson contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.
Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.