Electronic Payments Potential Untapped: Onsite Coverage
But if financial institutions, community organizations and government collaborated, they could help them so much more, according to a panel of academics, payment executives and community leaders who convened at the National Press Club July 17 to discuss new research released by J. Phillip Thompson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event was hosted by The Center for Financial Services Innovation and Master Your Card, MasterCard’s public education campaign.
Joining Thompson on the panel were Shawn Miles, global head of public policy for MasterCard, and Marla Bilonick, interim executive director at the Latino Economic Development Center in Washington.
The panel soon took its conversation beyond Thompson’s research, which he had conducted on behalf of MasterCard.
Bilonick said in order to truly understand how important electronic payments are to low income people, the perspective of payer and payee must be considered. Electronic payments allow those consumers to more easily, efficiently and less expensively pay their bills, she said.
“It is far easier to make your rent payment or house payment or utility payment electronically than to have to travel across town, wait in line and then pay it by hand in cash or a money order,” Bilonick pointed out. She added low income consumers are much more likely to make payments on time and keep making them on time when they can be done electronically. Those payments, in turn, can help them improve or build credit history.
Her organization’s low income entrepreneur clients reduced robbery risk with electronic payments, she said, and also grew their client bases and found record keeping much easier. Later in the discussion, Bilonick expressed hope that financial institutions and other remittance providers could coordinate with credit bureaus to include regular remittance payments in income verification and credit scores.
The panel agreed lower income consumers needed more education about security concerns and measures taken to protect cardholders from losses in case of fraud, but Thompson pointed out that security, from a low income point of view, was relative.
If a low income cardholder lost $500 due fraudulent transactions made on his or her card, the funds would be returned after the theft was reported. However, if $500 was lost in a mugging or other robbery, that money was probably gone forever.
Thompson also pointed out safety concerns in many poor neighborhoods had driven out many small businesses. Wider use of electronic payments offered the promise of seeing small business return to some of these neighborhoods, he said.
In other dramatic examples of the impact electronic payments could have, Thompson related how some of the people put most at risk from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy had not left the storm zones in time because they had been waiting for their paychecks.
Further, he said people stranded on roofs by Hurricane Katrina flooding lacked both a working cellphone and a credit card.
“If you had a cellphone and a credit card,” Thompson said, “you were able to call a service and order a chopper to come and pick you up.”
The panel pressed that the point that electronic payments could make a larger impact on the lives of low income people if financial institutions, community organizations and government were more open to the possibilities.
For example, Thompson said New York City renters deposited roughly $2 billion into security deposit accounts on their apartments, and those funds remained there unused.
“These deposits are not counted as savings. Why not?” Thompson asked. He added many of the buildings are in need of retrofitting for improved energy use. Government, community organizations and financial institutions partner to find a way tenants could access or leverage those security deposits, usually a first and last month’s rent, to make those needed upgrades, improving the apartments and lowering their utility bills, he said.
Jeanne Hogarth, vice president of policy for CFSI, moderated the panel. About 60 executives from financial organizations, community organizations and government agencies attended the event.