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More on the Postal Service as financial service provider

I still think it’s a good idea, and so do a lot of other people.

The Postal Banking Consumer Survey [PDF] asked more than 1,600 consumers, many of whom do not have access to traditional banking services, whether or not USPS should enter the banking arena.

Most consumers, about 63%, reported that the addition of services, such as bill paying, check cashing, and small-dollar loans, would not matter to them.

However, a majority, about 58%, of consumers support the argument that providing financial services at USPS branches would expand access to safe financial products for low- and middle-income Americans while providing a new sources of revenue for the Postal Service.

Nearly 64% of consumers who identify as using alternative financial services believe the expansion of safe financial services would be beneficial to both consumers and the postal service.

Conversely, only 32% of those surveyed said they believe that providing financial services at Postal Service branches would divert resources from mail delivery and give the government-run Postal Service an unfair advantage over privately-run companies that already offer financial services.

“There is a market here but it’s limited,” Alex Horowitz, research officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, says. “When we look at people who already are using alternative services it changes. There is quite a bit of interest for lower-cost services among those who already use alternative services.”

[…]

Consumers who currently use alternative financial services were more likely to use lower-cost services though their local post office branch.

Nearly 46% would use check-cashing, 27% would purchase prepaid cards, 46% would use bill-pay services and 41% would consider payday loans through the postal service.

See here for the background. We all know that payday lenders are a big issue for a lot of people, but so are things like check cashing services, mostly because of the large fees they charge. The point of this idea is that the Postal Service could be a lower cost provider of conveniences like check cashing and bill paying. Another advantage of using the USPS for this is that there are post offices everywhere.

The USPS Office of Inspector General first made the case for expanding into financial services this January, calling itself “well positioned” to meet the needs of underserved Americans. It didn’t take long for the idea to garner attention from high-profile legislators like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass), who joined other lawmakers and experts at a Pew conference Wednesday to debate the merits and pitfalls.

There’s consensus on the easy part: the problem. Most people agree that an astounding number of Americans live outside the mainstream financial system and this often has a negative impact on their financial lives and futures. In total, they comprise a quarter of US households and spend tens of billions on fees and interest each year. To put this in perspective, Warren likes to point out that these Americans spend as much money on financial services as they do on food, which is to say they spend $2,412 a year per household, or roughly 10% of their income.

Clearly the big question that remains is whether the post office is the right vehicle for delivering change.

Postal services in dozens of other countries, including Japan, Switzerland and the UK, already do it. Many make big money from it. The USPS itself offered a savings program for over fifty years, but discontinued it in 1967.

One thing the post office has going for it is an extensive brick-and-mortar network, with over 30,000 locations in nearly every zip code. While there are three times as many bank branches, they don’t cover as many zip codes. In Montana, as in many rural places, “you can find yourself more than 75 miles from the nearest bank branch,” but close to two or three post offices, says Pew’s Clint Key. There’s a term for this: bank desert. Indeed, Pew found that 10% of census tracts (neighborhoods, essentially) don’t have a bank branch within five miles, but most do have a post office close by.

The problem is getting worse, not better, for America’s underserved families. Since 2008, 93% of bank branch closings have been in zip codes with below-national median household income levels. Meanwhile, banks have been opening branches in areas with median incomes above $100,000.

The post office also touts its trusted brand, saying consumers who walk in to any location would know they were getting safe, simple financial products. A Pew finding shows that 71% of people view the US Postal Service favorably, compared to 9% for payday lenders, 21% for check cashiers and 56% for banks.

“This is an opportunity for the post office to use its space and its employees more efficiently to bring needed services to more Americans,” said Warren.

If the post office were to get into banking, it wouldn’t just be out of the goodness of its heart. It estimates a revenue of $8.9 billion each year. If true, this is a big deal for an agency in crisis. The post office loses money every year. Thanks to the internet, mail volume has plunged 22% over the last five years. Meanwhile, the USPS is struggling with a Congressional edict that it pre-fund employee benefits.

“This is an existential crisis,” said James Gattuso, senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation.”The postal service needs a new line of business.”

Sure seems like a good fit all around. Getting into the short-term loans business is another matter, as it’s inherently risky and would require Congressional approval, which these days is nigh impossible to achieve. Still, this has the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s worth serious consideration.

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One Comment

  1. Joe White says:

    It’s. Not. Government’s. Job.

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