A new survey from the Federal Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has found that financial inclusion actually improved during the pandemic, despite shutdowns, mass layoffs, and a short recession.
The biannual survey found that in 2021 the number of "unbanked" U.S. households — or those without a checking or savings account — was at the lowest level since 2009, when the agency first started tracking bank ownership.
An estimated 4.5 percent of households were unbanked, which is down 0.9 percent from the last survey in 2019 and 3.7 percent from the measure's post-recession peak in 2011.
There were several trends pushing down the number of unbanked, but the FDIC noted that one clear cause was that more Americans opened bank accounts during the pandemic to access COVID relief funds. “During the pandemic, consumers opened bank accounts to access relief funds and other benefits quickly and securely,” said FDIC Acting Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg, in a statement.
In addition, the agency said an aversion to in-person interactions during the height of the pandemic pushed more households to adopt mobile and online banking options.
Most of the decline, however, is attributable to broader economic and social gains. The survey noted that about one-third of the decline from 2019 (and one-half from 2011) stemmed from changes in socioeconomic conditions, such as increases to income and educational attainment.
The racial and economic disparities between banked and unbanked also remain pronounced. For example, 11.3 percent of Black Americans were unbanked, compared to 2.1 percent of white, while around 20 percent of households that make less than $15,000 per year were unbanked, compared to around 1 percent for those who make at least $75,000.
FDIC pointed out that the racial divide transcends income levels as well, highlighting that 8.0 percent of Black households with income between $30,000 and $50,000 were unbanked, while just 1.7 percent of white households in that income range were unbanked.
As for the 5.9 million households that remain without a bank account, the most-cited reason was “don’t have enough money to meet minimum balance requirements."