The Big Save

Monday, September 26, 2011

TWO years ago Sabina sold flowers on the street from a shopping trolley. Today she has her own storefront in Queens, thanks to a $1,500 loan from Grameen America, a microfinance institution based on Grameen bank, which was founded by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. Since opening its first American branch in January 2008, Grameen has found fertile ground. It has lent more than $25m to 7,300 borrowers. At 15%, interest rates are high, but far less than a loan shark or payday lender would charge (the annualised interest on a payday loan is typically 400%, sometimes twice that), and there are no other fees or collateral required. Grameen America’s repayment rate is around 99%. It now has branches in four of New York’s five boroughs, and plans to open in Washington, DC, North Carolina and California. It also has one in Omaha and Indianapolis.

Also expanding in California is Self-Help, a North Carolina-based institution that develops property for affordable housing and small businesses, makes mortgage loans to low-income and low-wealth customers and operates a network of credit unions. Its mission is to help poor people buy houses; its founder, Martin Eakes, believes that “most families enter the middle class by becoming homeowners”. A similar institution in Massachusetts, Boston Community Capital (BCC), aims not to get poor Bostonians into homes but to keep them there: BCC buys foreclosed houses from banks and resells them to the original owners with 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. In the past two years BCC has prevented 135 Massachusetts homeowners from being evicted, and dramatically cut their monthly payments.

But it is not just homeowners in dire straits who need better financial services. A report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 2009 found that more than a quarter of American households are “unbanked” or “underbanked”-meaning they either have no bank accounts, or have accounts but still use non-bank services. And as the number of poor Americans has grown, that number may have increased.

Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)