Unveiling the unbanked “us” in USA

Spent: A documentary about the invisible millions of unbanked Americans

Spent: A documentary about the invisible millions of unbanked Americans

Watching, Spent: Looking for Change, a documentary about the millions, that’s a staggering 70 million (or 22% of the population) Americans who are “unbanked,” is a sobering affair. The term unbanked refers to individuals that for myriad reasons, are unable to access and use the banking system effectively. Many associate the term unbanked with developing nations, and in recent years, major pushes have been made in India and across Africa to increase access to banking, particularly for women.

Here in the US, the issue, as far as the middle class and the media are concerned, has been a largely invisible one- the veil only temporarily lifted when we have a major economic crisis like in 2008 and attention is drawn to that most pernicious of leeches- “the payday loan industry”. And unlike the affluent who have the ability to recover from setbacks, for low-income folks, a “setback” isn’t that at all- it’s the start of a inexorable downward spiral from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

For the middle class and affluent, the establishment of a bank account is a youthful right of passage. In fact, I just opened my daughter’s first savings accounts and they have had college savings accounts since before they were born. How can something that for many feels so readily accessible that we take it for granted be such a giant hurdle to millions of hard-working people?
A family profiled in the movie struggling to stay afloat

A family profiled in Spent; who are struggling to stay afloat.

Spent aims to tackle exactly that question. This compelling documentary illuminates not just the causes, but the faces of the unbanked. It introduces us to people who look very much like the “banked”- they have just had a few more obstacles, wrong turns, and fewer safety nets in place as they have moved through life.

If you watch this documentary (which is only 30 minutes long- so you HAVE the time) and you can’t see yourself in the family struggling to make ends meet with the financial burden of the support and therapy needed for their special needs child, or the single mother who is faced with the cost and responsibility of elder care, while still striving to create a bright future for her child, or the young woman struggling to make her entrepreneurial dream a reality, then you aren’t taking an honest look at yourself. Or you have been extraordinarily lucky.

I can imagine critics saying that these people shouldn’t have made some of the choices they made. Sure, that’s true. But ALL of us have made choices, financial or otherwise, that we shouldn’t have made in our youth- or have been faced with the impossible choices of that arise out of medical crises. I often think about how our family would have been affected if we hadn’t had medical insurance when we were struck by a devastating medical crisis a few years back- with a total bill that topped $250,000 by the time it was over. Just a slightly different circumstance at that time could have left us with crushing debt.

So, when I say that this documentary is the “us” in USA- I mean it. The unbanked are our family, our friends, co-workers, and neighbors. They may be largely invisible because of the social or work circles you move in, but we all have occasion to pass by those deceptively friendly payday loan storefronts. The next time you wonder who would use such a blatantly predatory service, I hope you’ll think of the people profiled in this documentary and rather than feel contempt, you’ll feel empathy.

Want to learn more?
In the US: www.spentmovie.com
Internationally: www.womensworldbanking.org
As always, I appreciate your time, your feedback or comments, and your shares!

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in product development. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at www.wyswords.com

Posted on October 9, 2014, in Big Ideas and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Really an enlightening documentary and appreciate you bringing it to a wider audience. Many of the more affluent are just a incident or a decision away from joining the ranks of the unbanked. Our elected representatives need to recognize that it is a national disgrace to have such a flimsy safety net that some are even trying to take away altogether. The voters need to keep this issue front and center. WML


    • Thanks Dad! Fortunately, there are folks that DO care and they are making documentaries like this. I think this issue is a particularly insidious one because the payday industry has such a “friendly” or helpful veneer- when they truly are just parasites. I am sure there is a way to provide this service in a more equitable (yet, still profitable) way.


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