This does not mean, however, that the evidence couldn’t be used to draw mixed conclusions. The New York Fed reports that lower-income communities and communities of color have been less affected than higher-income and majority-white communities by bank branch closings that occurred in the shadow of the Great Recession. However, these communities had less to lose to begin with. Lower-income communities and communities of color have been experiencing a shuttering of bank branches for nearly two decades—devolving into “banking deserts” for quite some time.
Federal deregulation in the 1990s allowed banks to pivot from primarily serving local communities to serving larger and more profitable geographic regions. Banks withdrew from local communities, closing their less-profitable branches that were often in lower-income communities and communities of color. High-cost alternative financial services began to occupy the communities once served by mainstream banking services, expanding at a rate of 15 percent per year since the 1990s.
When alternative financial services like payday lenders and check-cashing stores—the equivalent of fast-food chains and convenience stores in this scenario—swoop into neighborhoods left behind by mainstream banks, residents pay a steep price to meet their financial needs: The average borrower spends over $500 a year in interest just on payday loans. Residents end up diverting money that could have otherwise been used to pay for irregular expenses or to build wealth, instead paying to use the basic financial products that they so desperately need to manage their financial lives. Because like convenience stores in food deserts that don’t sell nutritious food that promotes good physical health, alternative financial services don’t sell products that build long-term financial health.
Technology like mobile banking and fintech innovations help close the geographic distance between households and brick-and-mortar bank branches, thereby increasing access to basic financial products. Yet technology alone cannot repair the negative impact that bank branch closures have had on mortgages and small business lending. Simply put, brick-and-mortar bank branches still matter for accessing credit to build wealth. Without a bank branch in their community, households have limited access to safer and more affordable products, like a savings account that could be used to pay for irregular expenses, or to invest in the future. And, as the New York Fed’s study indicates, residents lose access to small business loans and mortgages when bank branches close, hindering the investment and entrepreneurship needed to drive local economic growth.
The consequences of these trends are what make the type of research undertaken by the New York Fed so important. This is an era in which households are experiencing unprecedented inequality and limited economic mobility, and these experiences are likely exacerbated in part by variations in communities’ resources and opportunities. In other words, some communities are deserts while others are oases—and these banking habitats are divided along lines of income and race.