Bank On Memphis Targets Smartphones

By Andy Meek

For about five years now, a partnership between the city of Memphis and local banks and credit unions has been working to bring people who don’t have a checking or savings account into the mainstream banking sphere.

Bank On Memphis is preparing to enter a new phase, with the launch of a campaign designed to reach its target audience on smartphones.

At a Thursday, Nov. 5, press conference, Bank On Memphis leaders – who include Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton – will introduce a smartphone app focused on reaching the unbanked and underbanked.

The app could advance the program’s goals in multiple ways. Bank On’s educational goal is to help the public understand the benefits of banking through the traditional system as opposed to using the high-cost payday loan and check-cashing world. That educational part of the campaign also involves sharing details of specific banking products, which helps ease the transition into mainstream banking.

Participating institutions working with the Bank On effort also have developed specific so-called second-chance accounts intended for customers with poor credit who may have been “bounced out” of the system, representing one more hurdle keeping them un-banked.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell also will be on hand for Thursday’s press conference at First Baptist Church, 2835 Broad Ave., as will members of the Shelby County Commission, bank industry leaders and some of the effort’s community partners.

Lenoir attributes the launch of the program and its continued progress to a statistic he cites about poverty in Memphis – specifically, nearly 30 percent of area residents living below the poverty line, which he says makes it imperative to address income inequality.

“The goal of Bank On Memphis,” Lenoir says, “is to move the dial through increased awareness, financial education and affordable access to mainstream banks and credit unions.”

While the effort brings new customers to those institutions, their self-interest is not necessarily about making money. Bank On encourages participants, for example, to open safe and low-cost checking and savings accounts and to move those people away from where the most money is being made off of them.

Pay day lenders, title loan businesses and the like, Lenoir said, are charging interest rates as high as 300 percent APR to keep people “in a cycle of debt and contributing to poverty, foreclosure rates and low credit scores.”

The Bank On effort also cites a report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which shows that Memphis leads the nation in unbanked and underbanked households. Some 90,000 households, according to the report, have little or no access to traditional banking services in the area, forcing them to turn to solutions that include prepaid cards, check cashers and similar services.

Wharton started the program in 2010 via a letter he sent soliciting participation from almost every bank and major credit union in Memphis. Its launch also came at a time when cities around the country had begun to strike similar partnerships between the public sector and financial institutions.