The U.S. Postal Service could offer basic banking services to customers, many of whom do not have reliable and affordable access to mainstream banking products like savings accounts and forms of credit.
From the moment I heard this, it sounded like a bad idea. Not long ago, discussions about the U.S. Postal Service focused on the question of ending delivery on Saturdays, the closing of 700 retail locations, and the elimination of the U.S. Postal service entirely. And now, there’s a proposal with studies claiming legitimate benefits across the board for expanding the services offered by this semi-private, semi-government entity.
The U.S. Postal Service has a weird existence. It is an independent government agency that operates like an independent corporation, but it is subject to congressional interference, oversight, and direction. USPS is not funded by tax revenue, yet the government still directs how the organization’s revenue is spent.
Providing the U.S. Postal Service with another profit center, like the ability to profit from basic banking services, might help the organization grow in strength.
The domestic precedent for banking at the post office.
In 1907, the United States suffered an economic recession, and this crisis was followed by a “panic” in 1910. The American public reacted by losing trust and faith in the banking industry, and in a bid to get money moving through the economy again, the Post Office began offering savings accounts in 1911. This made basic banking services available to working class people, who felt either abused or ignored by the financial industry. The savings account earned depositors 2% interest, while the post office earned 2.5% interest on the deposits by investing them with the mainstream financial industry.
The Postal Service continued offering deposit accounts through 1967, but still continues offering money orders, which allow customers to send money in cash form relatively securely from one location to another.
The social environment that spurred to government to allow the USPS to start offering banking services exists today. According to Elizabeth Warren, a senator who is in favor of expanding the Postal Service’s relationship with retail money-handling, “… [T]he average underserved household spends roughly 10 percent of its annual income on interest and fees — about the same amount they spend on food.”
The poor is spending too much money on non-bank financial services like check-cashing and payday loans. Poor communities turn to predatory, high-cost financial services because they don’t have many choices. Banks — and even credit unions, which are thought to better support local communities — do not set up retail locations in economically-stressed neighborhoods because it’s not profitable. There’s little trust in either direction between the banking industry and poor communities. Even if convenient retail locations did exist in high-poverty locations, customers would not walk through the doors.
But everyone goes to the Post Office or receives deliveries from a letter carrier. While the USPS reach in rural locations isn’t great, delivery services touch almost every household in the country, regardless of socio-economic status. If the U.S. Postal Service is able to offer check-cashing and small loans, and perhaps limited deposits again, and able to offer such services at a lower cost than what is currently available, it could mean a better lifestyle for those living in tough financial situations.
The foreign precedent for banking at the post office.
Other countries have successfully implemented similar models.
- In Australia, you can bank at the post office. Australia Post works in partnership with the financial industry to accept deposits and make withdrawals and pay credit card bills.
- In the United Kingdom, the Post Office offers banking services that compete with retail banking, and has recently expanded their selection of banking products. The Post Office in the UK is structured differently, with a different service that handles delivery and collection of mail (the Royal Mail), and both are now private companies than they are government agencies.
- La Poste in France has its own banking subsidiary, La Banque postale, and post offices in that country offer banking services.
- Poste italiene in Italy, which was once a government-owned monopoly but is now a public company under government control, offers financial products such as savings accounts and prepaid cards.
- The postal service in Japan, again a former government agency that has gone through privatization, offers a variety of financial services including savings accounts, government bonds, investments, and loans.
The banking industry isn’t a fan of the idea.
Banks don’t want competition from outside their industry. Competition of this kind is a threat to the reputation of the industry, especially when an organization as unhealthy as the U.S. Postal Service can come in and undercut their pricing. A recent article in American Banker, the trade publication of the American Bankers Association poked fun at the idea that the USPS could serve poor communities better than the financial industry with “15 reasons why the post office should stay out of banking.” Each “reason” was a Tweet in which a Postal Service customer complained on Twitter about an interaction with the mail or an employee of the post office. The 15 reasons were in fact just one: poor customer service.
Customer service is a legitimate complaint. It seems far-fetched to take a work force that already seems displeased with the responsibilities they have and introduce more services. They will need training. They will need more staff to handle larger volumes of customers. The proposal could take a generally bad customer experience and make it much worse.
But the postal service does not hold a monopoly on bad customer service; in fact, the post office and the financial industry are roughly tied in the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). When it comes to pointing out customer service issues, the banking industry can sit back down.
Some in the U.S. Postal Service approve of the idea.
The U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General released a white paper with research about and support for the idea. The Postal Service considers itself to be one of the most trusted companies in America (citing the Ponemon Institute’s survey which named the USPS the fourth most trusted company in the United States), but the organization isn’t usually included in surveys of the most trusted private companies because the USPS isn’t fully private. If the Post Office is trusted much more than companies in the banking industry, it is well-positioned to handle consumers’ financial responsibilities much better than banks.
The Postal Service is well positioned to provide non-bank financial services to those whose needs are not being met by the traditional financial sector. It could accomplish this largely by partnering with banks, who also could lend expertise as the Postal Service structures new offerings. The Office of Inspector General is not suggesting that the Postal Service become a bank or openly compete with banks. To the contrary, we are suggesting that the Postal Service could greatly complement banks’ offerings. The Postal Service could help financial institutions fill the gaps in their efforts to reach the underserved. While banks are closing branches all over the country, mostly in low-income areas like rural communities and inner cities, the physical postal network is ubiquitous.
Here’s the bottom line. The banking industry has no interest in expanding services to cover poverty-stricken communities and households and those households have no interest in dealing with the banking industry. At the same time, the poverty needs financial services, and they are restricted to their only, expensive options like payday loans and check-cashing storefronts. These products exist because there is a need for them — or for something. So far, this has been the only profitable, and thus sustainable, way to bring financial services to certain communities.
If we can leverage an existing infrastructure to reduce the cost of financial service for the poor, and reduce their financial burden at the same time, it’s worth looking into. The U.S. Postal Service is not always the example of a perfect organization, but it is not any worse than your average bank. Despite closures, the Postal Service has the infrastructure in place to better reach communities underserved by the financial industry. Any other method of expand financial services would require a much bigger investment in infrastructure and would not be financially viable.
The U.S. Postal Service should begin to offer basic banking services, like savings accounts and prepaid debit cards. The financial industry doesn’t need to see this as competition, because the primary target customer isn’t interested in working with a bank, anyway. The Postal Service could partner with the industry behind the scenes to take advantage of the financial infrastructure that already exists. A relationship is possible, and rather than fight society’s attempts to better serve the underserved, the financial industry should welcome any kind of innovation that would help bring banking to lower classes.
Eventually, as households in poverty become better acquainted with financial products, they will become better customers for banks, even if it takes a generation for that to take hold.
Updated February 17, 2014 and originally published February 11, 2014.