Released Wednesday, the study found that 821,000 households opted out of the banking system from 2009 to 2011 and that the so-called unbanked population grew to 8.2 percent of U.S. households.
That means that roughly 17 million adults are without a checking or savings account. Another 51 million adults have a bank account, but use pawnshops, payday lenders or rent-to-own services, the FDIC said. This underbanked population has grown from 18.2 percent to 20.1 percent of households nationwide.
The study also found that one in four households, or 28.3 percent, either had one or no bank account. A third of these households said they do not have enough money to open and fund an account. Minorities, the unemployed, young people and lower-income households are least likely to have accounts.
Stubbornly high unemployment and underemployment have placed millions of Americans in precarious financial positions, leaving them unable to absorb overdraft charges or minimum-balance fees.
In the past year alone, Wells Fargo, Capital One and SunTrust have alerted customers to pending fee hikes on checking accounts or have raised overdraft charges. Banks say service charges are needed to offset the loss of revenue from a cap on debit-card transaction fees imposed by the government.
“Banks need to have pricing and practices that consumers can trust and allow them to build wealth and have economic mobility,” said Deborah Goldstein, chief operating officer at the Center for Responsible Lending.
“If the account fees will leave them worse off, then its going to be a challenge for people to use banking services.”
Banks say it is difficult to make money serving lower-income communities because the cost of managing their accounts outweighs the return.
“There has to be a recognition that there are costs to providing accounts and those costs have to be covered,” said Nessa Feddis, vice president and general counsel at the American Bankers Association. She estimated that it costs banks up to $300 a year to maintain a checking account because of expenses such as processing transactions.
National Community Reinvestment Coalition chief executive John Taylor argued that banks could make up some of that cost by the sheer volume of new accounts.
Feddis disagreed. “You can’t take a losing account and make it up in bulk,” she said. “You’re not going to spend money to lose money.”
Without access to traditional banks, Taylor said, Americans are susceptible to abusive practices at non-bank institutions and are likely to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of financial strain.