<p>It is virtually impossible for anyone to achieve the American dream of financial independence if his or her primary financial institution is a pawn shop, title loan company or check cashing outlet. Financial independence for America’s over 90 million `unbanked’ or `underserved’ individuals is indeed an elusive goal which they might never meet without a partner. Credit unions can be that partner for many of these Americans in their goal for personal empowerment through financial self-sufficiency. Believing that credit unions can be a part of the solution to this growing need in our country, NCUA has initiated a program we call `Access Across America’ which is designed to facilitate the extension of low-cost credit union services to millions of these citizens. The initiative is already showing tremendous results Why does Access Across America matter? The three A’s in the program’s name tell the story. Access speaks to the purpose of the program and the proper role of NCUA as a governmental agency. Government has never signed up the first credit union member, nor has it made the first credit union loan. Vital though our role is as a safety and soundness regulator, NCUA must recognize the limits of what we can and cannot do. Credit unions serve their members. NCUA cannot do that. However, as a governmental agency, we can be and should be an agent of access and opportunity to that service. In fact, as long as the service is provided in accordance with applicable law and regulation and is extended in a safe and sound manner, NCUA should facilitate credit unions as they seek to reach out and provide low-cost financial services to as many Americans as possible. Today more than 90 million Americans reside in census tracts designated by the US Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) program as underserved. These are folks who have largely been abandoned by traditional financial institutions during the merger-mania years and have been left to the mercy of the check cashers and pawn shops which proliferate in their neighborhoods. Regulatory Relief Although NCUA as a government agency cannot guarantee that they will choose to join a credit union or take advantage of a credit union’s services if offered, we can make it easier for visionary, well-managed credit unions to adopt those underserved neighborhoods into their fields of membership and to extend many of the needed services to those who live there. Through a streamlined process and the prioritization of applications by those credit unions who submit a workable business plan to serve one or more of these underserved areas, NCUA was able to be an agent of opportunity for over 16.1 million Americans who became eligible to join a credit union under our Access Across America initiative in 2001. More than 5.3 million additional Americans living in CDFI underserved areas have been made eligible to join a credit union so far in 2002. Over 200 federal credit unions have stepped forward to adopt these neighborhoods in the last 18 months and, although such an expansion of services is not the right fit for every credit union and must be carefully evaluated as a part of a safe and sound business plan, it is an opportunity for many credit unions to consider. We encourage credit unions under Access Across America to think outside their present comfort zones and to see the opportunities available in many of these underserved areas. As they examine the possibilities of extending service to these neighborhoods as a part of their outreach-oriented business plans, NCUA is turning an approval process which once took over a year into one which can be completed in less than two months. Without sacrificing standards but by prioritizing streamlined process, NCUA has removed the biggest single deterrent to credit unions reaching out to adopt these underserved areas – regulatory hurdles. The results in 2001 are staggering when compared with those just two years before when only seven credit unions adopted underserved areas with only 350,000 residents. The difference is an emphasis on access – which is what the Credit Union Membership Access Act was all about and which Access Across America is built upon. Across speaks to the nationwide dimensions of this initiative. Just as those 90 million Americans are scattered across this great land of ours, so are the credit unions that can provide them with an alternative to a payday lender’s 400% loan or a rent-to-own company’s 200% furniture financing plan. CUs Step Up In 2001, 165 credit unions adopted a record 282 underserved areas. Applications on a pace to far exceed that record number continue to be received so far in 2002. These underserved areas are located all across the country with applications having been approved in 41 states since the program began. All six of NCUA’s regional offices have made Access Across America a high priority and it will remain so. When combined with last year’s approval of 135 community charter conversions or expansions (each of which also contained a number of CDFI underserved areas in the approved communities), America’s credit unions have demonstrated that they are willing to put their money where their mouths are by taking advantage of the legal and regulatory opportunities available to them to serve unbanked neighborhoods. Because they are required by NCUA regulation to have a physical presence in any underserved area they choose to serve, credit unions demonstrate through their investment in the community that they are willing to be a low-cost alternative to the high-cost lenders which have been often accused (and rightly so) of being predatory in their lending practices, rates and terms in many of those same communities. Even though they are often criticized for reaching out to serve the very communities their critics have abandoned, NCUA believes credit unions that desire to allow their heartbeat for serving the unbanked to manifest itself through service to these neighborhoods should be facilitated so long as they have a safe and sound plan for doing so. America needs access to the low-cost services credit unions can provide. It is then each person’s choice as a consumer as to whether to take advantage of those services. History tells us that they will do so when the opportunity is there. Credit unions have over 80 million members nationwide today. Financial literacy is a key element in helping meet the needs of the unbanked in America. Credit unions are increasing their financial counseling programs in these communities, helping folks recognize that a 400% payday loan is not a good deal no matter how badly they need the money today. Working in partnership with other governmental agencies as a part of the Bush administration’s focus on creating empowerment opportunities for individuals who may lack financial self-sufficiency today, NCUA is encouraging credit unions to participate in programs offered by the Treasury Department, HUD, Appalachian Regional Commission, Small Business Administration, and others to help them further financial literacy efforts and extend credit and savings opportunities for first-time members – many of whom are opening their first-ever account. One of the most overlooked aspects of NCUA’s Access Across America initiative is the partnership opportunities it encourages with these other governmental programs. Links to these programs – most of which credit unions are fully eligible to participate in – are available on the website www.accessacrossamerica.gov or through NCUA’s own www.ncua.gov. Although credit unions are indeed stepping forward through this initiative to help achieve Access Across America without a regulatory or statutory mandate requiring them to do so, we should all recognize that this must be an ongoing effort. Not only should credit unions consider whether their business planning would benefit by outreach into an underserved neighborhood as an addition to their present field of membership, but all credit unions should keep good records to demonstrate their successes in this arena. Serving people from all walks of life is an important part of the credit union heartbeat and the success stories are legion. Those stories must be documented and shared by the credit unions who have seen the life-changing victories they have empowered through their outreach efforts. And we at NCUA must continue to be the agent of opportunity and access which makes those successes possible. That is why Access Across America matters.</p>

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