This Credit Union in Disguise Is Helping Poor Latino Communities

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Neon window signs advertise money transfers and “cambio de cheques” (check cashing). Sandwiched between a beauty salon and a convenience store, Community Trust Prospera looks like any other check-cashing shop in the largely immigrant neighborhood in East San Jose, Calif. Except it isn’t.

Inside, Spanish-speaking employees urge customers to open a savings account or apply for a credit-building loan. Community Trust Prospera is actually a credit union in disguise.

The storefront on Story Road is one of six check-cashing-and-banking branches opened in San Jose and Los Angeles County in recent years. It’s the Self-Help Federal Credit Union’s new approach to bringing poor Latino communities into the financial mainstream. “It’s a baby step,” says Randy Chambers, CFO of Self-Help, a credit union that serves low-income clients and runs Prospera. “Many have never had a credit history and now they’re building credit.”

The goal is to reach “unbanked” Latino immigrants who are stuck in a cash-based world. A 2013 survey by the National Council of la Raza shows that two out of 10 Latinos in the United States don’t use banks—a higher rate than Asians and African-Americans. They are also highly likely to rely on predatory payday loans and high-priced check-cashing services.

“Owning a bank account is not a silver bullet to financial wealth. But it is the first step,” says Marisabel Torres, a wealth-building policy analyst for the council. Traditional banks have marginalized immigrant communities for many reasons, says Torres: They often come have little income, no credit history, and—in some cases—no Social Security number.

But credit unions around across the country are starting to see the Latino community as a promising market. The number of credit unions has been declining for decades. Each month about 20 of these nonprofit financial institutions close, according to data from the Credit Union National Association.

Credit-union leaders say they see the “unbanked” Latino community as crucial for their growth. And many have come up with unique ways to lure Latinos, particularly immigrants, into the financial mainstream. One credit union in North Carolina offers members a prepaid debit card that they can send to relatives abroad. A credit union in Iowa offers a special quinceañera loan for families who want to throw their 15-year-old daughters the traditional Latin American birthday bash.

Prospera’s check-cashing model hasn’t yet caught on, but it seems to be working. The first branch opened in 2010 and now all six count a total 11,000 members and $1.3 million in savings, according to Chambers.

Darwin Morán, 36, first starting going to Prospera in East San Jose to cash paychecks from his landscaping job and to wire money to his mother in El Salvador. At first, he didn’t realize it was a credit union. Morán once had a Wells Fargo savings account, he said, but never used it because he lived paycheck-to-paycheck. He didn’t want another one, but Prospera’s staff kept bugging him about saving his money.

“I started to become friends with them and slowly I started to change my mind,” says Morán, who opened a savings and checking account three years ago. Morán applied last year for a “Fresh Start” loan, which puts $1,000 into an account that customers can’t touch until it’s paid off. He wanted to raise his credit score after credit-card debt had tanked it, he says. Last month, Morán made his final $100 payment and saw his score jump 3 points.

“Fixing my credit and paying my debts was so important to me,” says Morán, who supports his wife and 11-year-old daughter on about $2,500 a month. “Maybe I will buy a home one day, but that seems out of reach right now.”

Source: National Journal (link opens in a new window)

Base of the Pyramid, financial inclusion