July 12, 2024

According to the FDIC, the number of unbanked households in Arkansas touched in all-time low in 2021 at 3.4%, down nearly 112% from five years ago.

By De’ Stani Clark 

May 30, 2024 — Whether to avoid germs or forgo uncomfortable conversations about finances, underbanked Arkansas families are finding new ways to access their money post-COVID-19. 

For Heavenly Zachery of Prescott, Ark., “it was a little bit of both,” she expressed. “There was maybe one conversation in high school about banks, and I hadn’t heard of many positive experiences,” said Zachery. However, the prospect of a new job and her mother’s determination to follow all COVID-19 precautions encouraged Heavenly to broaden her banking knowledge. 

With the guidance of her grandfather, Ronnie Nolan, Heavenly ventured into one of the few local banks in the small southwest Arkansas town to create her first checking account.

“I’ll say taking him to the bank with me made the experience ten times better than it probably would have been if I had gone by myself,” said Zachery. “Especially as I am a young Black female going into a bank.” 

Heavenly isn’t the first young adult or Black female to be wary of traditional banks that offer checking and savings accounts and access to financial services. According to the “FDIC’s 2021 Survey of the Unbanked and Underbanked,” after minimum balance requirements,  “Don’t trust banks” was the second-most cited reason for not having an account in 2021, and “Avoiding a bank gives more privacy” was the third-most cited reason. 

These sentiments are prominent in Black and brown communities. The FDIC emphasizes inadequate access to financial services pushes the unbanked to use high-cost alternatives for their transactional needs.

These alternatives can hinder access to credit when households need it, adversely affecting the financial health, educational opportunities, and welfare of unbanked households and increasing economic inequality. 

Thanks to the introduction of new digital products and government benefits, Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE), families and individuals in Arkansas and across the U.S. have been incentivized to participate in the mainstream financial sector. This has led to a significant decrease in the number of unbanked and underbanked households from 2019 to 2023, a trend set to continue. 

Digital Banking in the New Era 

Professionals in the industry have acknowledged this as a remarkable feat throughout the nation and Arkansas. However, as we look forward, under the 2024 FDIC Economic Inclusion Strategic Plan, a comprehensive roadmap has been laid out to advance financial equity and inclusion further. The report concluded that the country has crossed a checkpoint toward financial equity but has yet to finish. 

For example, after moving to Northwest Arkansas, where diversity is slim, and it was “easier to just Google a question” than ask a local teller, Heavenly is solely now a digital banking and “neobank” consumer. 

“I am 100% an online banker. It’s mainly for accessibility—better 24-hour customer service, fewer unexpected fees and restrictions, automated savings options, and no need to go into a bank,” she said. Similar trends have led some to question if consumers are sacrificing healthy relationships with bank service providers for much-needed convenience.

Banked households use nonbank online payment services such as PayPal, Venmo, Chime, and Cash App to complement banking products. These digital platforms allow you to send and receive money, pay bills, and manage your finances online. On the other hand, ALICE underbanked and unbanked households may use them as substitutes for traditional banking or other financial services. 

The FDIC analysis also found that special efforts are needed to ensure expanded access to financial services for ALICE consumers, consumers of color, and other underserved groups, such as households led by working-age individuals with disabilities, single-parent families, and consumers with fewer years of formal education. 

As the industry navigates this new era, the strategic plan highlights key opportunity areas, such as establishing an on-ramp to the U.S. financial system and aiding access to consumer credit to manage ongoing and emergency expenses better. It also encourages fostering household wealth through investments, bank lending, and other services that support strong and healthy communities, including ALICE households, low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods, and other underserved groups.

“Promoting economic inclusion among these populations requires understanding their financial needs and challenges,” states the 2021 FDIC Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households. 

In the face of these challenges Arkansans can be inspired by iInitiatives like BankOn Arkansas+ and the Arkansas Women’s Business Fund. These organizations  are not just about creating accounts; they are about empowering individuals like Heavenly Zachery, cultivating inspiring hope for a brighter financial future.

Alliances for ALICE

According to recent data from United for Alice, a national nonprofit that advocates for ALICE households, financial hardship for such individuals and families in the Natural State has been steadily growing since the end of the Great Recession. Since the pandemic, 47% of the ALICE households across the state that live below the federal poverty line are struggling financially with little access to sound banking tools.

In response to the financial threats unbanked and underbanked consumers face, Arkansas bankers and a coalition of nonprofit organizations founded BankOn Arkansas+. The Arkansas Asset Funders Network (AR AFN) first seeded BankOn Arkansas+ in 2018. The initiative aligns with AR AFN’s mission to advance equitable wealth-building and economic mobility. These relationships give access to additional financial literacy, investment opportunities, credit management, and overall economic stability.

‘You can’t budget yourself out of poverty,’ asserted Shamim Okolloh, a resident of Little Rock. Her family’s journey from being ALICE to climbing to executive ranks at Encore Bank and a published author of Ella the Banker is a testament to the transformative power of financial inclusion initiatives. Her story is a beacon of hope for many others in similar situations.

“I was ALICE,” stated Okolloh, now vice president of community outreach at Encore. “It wasn’t that I was bad with money; my income was just limited.” About five years ago, Okolloh and the statewide food pantry met with the Little Rock branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, increasing her interest in the local financial sector. 

From that experience, Shamim became a channel partner for what is now BankOn Arkansas+. “I remember walking into the room, and multiple banks were at the table. It was my first time. We often think banks are super competitive, but it was great to see that collaboration,” said Okolloh.

Okolloh was empowered to enact financial literacy for AFB locations across the state after that meeting. “There is not a lot of trust in certain communities with banking, for good reason,” she said.

As part of the plus on BankOn+, the AFB was one of the trusted spaces. Many people coming to food pantries across the state typically have some financial need tied to experiencing food insecurity. 

“About 40% of the people—visiting AFB—were working, and something happened. Their tire went out, a partner or someone lost a job, or there was this one big financial misstep that led them to seek alternative ways to feed their families,” explained Okolloh. 

Financial stability is not just about access to resources; it’s about education. Shamim’s journey is a perfect example. She credits additional financial education with helping her purchase her first home in 2017. This highlights the life-changing power of financial literacy and instills optimism about its potential for improving economic health. 

The Arkansas banker attended a homebuyer’s class and was informed about down payment assistance. She needed a total of $1000 out-of-pocket cost for inspection and appraisal. It wasn’t until her son was in a grant-funded preschool that she could save an additional $700. “If somebody hadn’t told me about this homebuyer’s class, I would probably still be a renter.”

Extending Resources and Building Relationships

Various institutions offer resources that promote financial wellness; however, additional hurdles remain as institutions debate how to extend these resources within diverse communities. As the industry promotes necessary access, new bank consumers primarily use digital products, and a quarter use online neobanks, causing a gap between the business and consumer. 

“If the children use Cash App, they’re not calling me—the banker. The relationship is not there whenever they need to make a purchase, such as a home or business. So, we ask ourselves how we can change the narrative to a warm and welcoming bank and industry. And then how do we hold the banking industry accountable, to be warm and open— providing belonging, equity, and opportunities,” shares Shamim. 

BankOn Arkansas+ Director Kara Wilkins strives to address those same questions. “Digital inclusion means using technology to support all aspects of financial well-being, including developing strategies that build inclusive pathways into banking and improve access to capital and credit for entrepreneurs,” she said.

Over the past five years, the BankOn Arkansas+ coalition has brought together financial institutions, nonprofit organizations, and other leaders from across the state. They aim to help provide access to bank accounts and advocate and support recommendations for long-term systemic financial stability policies, creating these ‘safe spaces.’

Recently, Forbes listed Arkansas as the fourth-best state for banking access. That is in no small part thanks to the tireless efforts of the BankOn Arkansas+ coalition, including their financial institution partners. Community leaders promote certified BankOn accounts within the communities they serve, and in turn, financial institutions can recommend wrap-around services that community partners provide to the account holders. Because of their hard work, Arkansas can take pride in reducing the number of unbanked households from 7.9% to 3.4%.

“Equity and economic justice are core pillars of Arkansas AFN and BankOn Arkansas+,” said Kara. She explains that their access to capital work recognizes that small business owners— particularly women of color— face significant roadblocks in accessing capital from banks and other traditional sources.

These challenges led to the launch of the Arkansas Women’s Business Fund, which re-envisions a robust small business capital infrastructure, providing more patient and flexible products directed to diverse entrepreneurs. BankOn Arkansas+ financial institutions played a critical role in helping to design the new product, hoping it would lead to better outcomes for those without a banking relationship or those hesitant to approach lenders.

Inspiring the Next Generation 

The efforts of Wilkins, Okolloh, and their counterparts are starting to impact aspiring young consumers like Heavenly. Okolloh recently published her first book, Ella the Banker, co-written with her son, Liam. The book spotlights the Encore banker’ daughter, Ella, a first grader who also wants to be just like her mom. This encouraging and fun book can now be purchased locally at Pyramid Arts, Books, and Custom Framing and is available nationally online at Amazon, Walmart.com, and BarnesandNoble.com. 

Economics Arkansas recently purchased over 500 copies to distribute to every elementary school in the state, thanks to partners like the U.S. Bank, Encore Bank, First Community Bank, and the Arkansas Women’s Business Fund.

“We can hopefully change the narrative and relationships with (banks) and explain better what banks do beyond just giving money, counting money, and saving money…” said Shamim. “ALICE individuals can bloom and belong.”  By working together, we can build a more inclusive financial system that empowers all Arkansans to achieve economic stability and prosperity.

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