It costs money to be poor. Payday loan services, pawn shops, money order providers, and a host of other companies charge low-income people comparatively high rates for basic banking services like paying bills and writing checks.
Sometimes, government programs add to the cost. According to a new report by the Federal Reserve, low-income people receiving federal benefits pay $9.69 a year on average to access those benefits using prepaid debit cards. That includes an average charge of 30 cents to buy certain items, and a 47-cent fee every time they withdraw money from their accounts.
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With 20 million prepaid cards in use by states and federal programs, that means financial institutions reaped $193 million in 2010 in fees charged to the poor. The practice has come under fire by some consumer advocates.
“States need to reduce fees in order to protect unemployed Americans who are struggling to survive and need every dollar,” according to a report by the National Consumer Law Center.
The costs vary greatly by state. Overdraft fees range from nonexistent to $17 in Ohio and $20 in Arkansas, according to the law center’s report. People in Alabama, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Iowa are caught in a trap, the center found, where they must pay balance inquiry fees of $.40 or $.50 cents, or pay a denied transaction fee of up to $2.50.
“The movement toward prepaid cards is a positive one for consumers in many ways, but improvements are still needed,” the law center found.
The Fed didn’t go into a detailed state-by-state comparison, or reach the grand conclusions found by the law center. According to the Fed, there are 20 million such cards in use, generating one billion transactions a year that are valued at $34.8 billion.
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Image: Kristina Zuidema, via Flickr