Unveiling the unbanked “us” in USA
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.
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.