How Banks Talk To ‘Poor People’

The community told my CDC they wanted financial services, and my CDC hired me.

It was clear from day one we needed regular workshops and trainings, because a startling amount of residents were still unbanked and operating in the informal economy. Thus, the first thing I did was ask people why they didn’t have bank accounts; why they couldn’t get a credit card.

“You know Bank of America? Yeah, they cheated me once.”

“I tried all that stuff, but it’s not for me.”

“Oh, I have several bank accounts, but I don’t use them.”

Following each reason was a long story against banking antagonists. Funny enough, I could hear the misunderstandings in the details. Had residents been exposed to more financial education, many of these problems could have been avoided. We needed a curriculum for teaching.

I locked myself in my office and slammed three fat binders on the desktop. It took me two weeks, but I read the entire CFPB, CBA, and FDIC curriculums and produced a long list of lessons. Once they were written, I started holding workshops and teaching.

I taught, and I taught, and I taught. Some people listened, others didn’t, and I realized something. I could talk about money all day, but I wasn’t the ones pulling the strings in our financial system. I needed to bring them to us.

And so, I began professionally dating Community Reinvestment Act employees. I’d meet a CRA officer for coffee and just chat. I’d flirt and offer them an opportunity to talk to our community, IF they brought financial literacy and pizza. They blushed and saw a big fat tax write-off on my forehead. “Sure!” They said.

Over almost two years I began a polygamous relationship with eight financial institutions including Metro Credit Union, Berkshire Bank, TD Bank, Eastern Bank, Bank of America, Capital One, Cambridge Trust, and City of Boston Credit Union. And at the end of this dirty affair, I had successfully facilitated a conversation between the community and the banking industry in Boston.

Although each bank showed up differently, they still fell into one of three categories.

The Boston Strong

These guys knocked every class out of the park. Comprised of credit unions and smaller banks, every institution in this category had been around long enough to really know their constituents. They brought games, food, and lessons that successfully broke down complex jargon into digestible rules of thumb. Their presentations admitted the system was rigged against low-income families. They were the true community banks and I loved working with them.

The Honestly Out-of-Touch

These folks pulled at my heart strings a little. An employee would arrive more excited than I expected and proceed to give a PowerPoint presentation. The residents and I could sense their enthusiasm – their genuine desire to give back to the community – even as they struggled to do so. They would give examples, relevant only to someone of a higher income, and I would cringe because we could all see their privilege showing.

The Stereotype

Pro tip for banks – don’t show up to an affordable housing workshop in pin stripes and pants suits. You can still be a banker by day, but if you want to give back by night, change your language; change your tone; and don’t use the same CFPB curriculum verbatim if I can just pull it off the internet. Admit your products may cause harm when used improperly. If you can’t communicate with low-income demographics, they won’t even start with you.

The moral of the story is not all banks work for all people. For certain cultures, family and face-to-face interactions are the norm. For other cultures, productivity and efficiency are key. The way our financial system shows up to black, white, Asian, and Latino peoples is important. And how they approach those most vulnerable to their businesses – the ‘poor folk’ – will have a significant impact on both parties.

And I certainly won’t want to date your CRA officer if they don’t bring pizza.40380172_463970897430507_938242838536126464_n



  1. Lynn Holbein · · Reply

    This is a great column, Jeff!! Informative and funny all at once. Good job!

  2. Alex Erskine · · Reply

    Always delightful to read your stuff my old friend. Keep up the good work!

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