Many people have shared the experience of depositing a check and then waiting while it takes days to clear; the money is there, but not there.
For low-income people, that experience isn’t just annoying. It can also be a real financial hardship. Mismatches between available funds and expenses can create a spiral of bank overdraft fees and denied transactions, and the deeper in someone gets, the more insurmountable it can feel.
“It’s very embarrassing,” a commenter told TalkPoverty, describing a day of being hit with three separate overdraft fees while waiting on processing for a paycheck.
That’s something that could change as early as 2024 with a proposed real-time payments system recently announced by the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank. With FedNow, as it’s being called, funds could be moved any day, any time, nearly instantly.
The move is long overdue and has big implications for people who cannot afford to wait for a transaction to clear, such as the 1.8 million people earning minimum wage or less. A waiter making a tipped minimum wage, for example, can ill afford to deposit a paycheck and wait for it to clear with their rent deadline looming, and the technology already exists to fix the problem.
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Real-time payments are used all over the world to move funds rapidly; they are a type of “faster payments,” which speed the payment process relative to the current standard, but they aren’t just faster. They are, as the name implies, virtually instant.
The United States, though, has remained stuck in the past with an outdated payments system created decades ago that doesn’t operate every day or at all times throughout the day.
In places such as Mexico, the U.K., Japan, Australia, and Turkey, both private firms and central banks own and operate faster payment systems — and in the U.S., a consortium of banks known as the Clearing House operates its own, called, creatively, RTP (for Real-Time Payments). RTP has been rolling out since 2017, and is open to all federally-insured financial institutions. The Clearing House claims RTP is active on 50 percent of direct deposit accounts in America, but the service’s initial customers were the same larger banks that make up the Clearing House.
These account for a large volume of American bank accounts, but a smaller segment of American banks; good for Chase, but perhaps not good for clients, especially since RTP controls pricing and access, potentially to the detriment of some users.
The Fed, building on the work of a task force formed to explore faster payments, wants to leverage its already extensive network of connections with banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions large and small. The goal is not to replace RTP, but to offer another option, and specifically a public one, which offers a net good and adheres to the government’s critical role in promoting fair access, pricing, and opportunity for all.
This is important because while the Clearing House has promised to hold rates steady, there’s no guarantee it will. Smaller banks are concerned about being cut out by what former Independent Community Bankers of America president and CEO Cam Fine described as a “monopoly.” Clearing House’s target date of 2020 for covering all direct deposit accounts in the U.S. is also likely unrealistic, while the Fed’s existing network and reach could make near-universal access much more logistically possible.
Fine notes that the Federal Reserve has been involved in payment processing for over 100 years; this is just another iteration of the central bank’s duties, a sentiment echoed by Chairman Jerome Powell.
Real-time settlement has big implications for businesses, especially small ones. But for low-income people, it could be transformative. Americans spend $24 billion in overdraft fees annually, some of which are driven by issues resolvable via faster payments; if there’s no lag between deposit and funds availability, there’s less likelihood of engaging in a transaction that will overdraw an account. If someone expects to get paid on Friday, the funds are instantly available, and they can pay their rent without worrying about a financial penalty.
People also spend about $7 billion on payday loans, which one in ten Americans have used. Real-time payments can’t wipe out the payday loan industry, but they can take a chunk out of it, since some of those loans are taken out in desperation by people who need money immediately, not after the time it takes for a bank to settle. Similarly, Americans spend approximately $2 billion cashing checks every year. That’s not just people who don’t have bank accounts; it includes people who can’t afford to wait for their accounts to clear.
That’s billions of dollars low-income people can ill-afford going into the pockets of companies with entire families of products built upon exploiting financial vulnerabilities.
Thomas Hoenig, former president of the Federal Reserve in Kansas City, former vice-Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and currently a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, notes that FedNow has another potential benefit as the system is built out: It could extend to other financial institutions such as remittance services. Immigrants sending money home through Western Union could therefore benefit from modernization to U.S. payments system, as a faster payments service in the United States can communicate with similar systems overseas, instantly transferring funds from senders to recipients.
Real-time payments will not fix issues like a federal minimum wage that hasn’t increased since 2009, repeated attacks on nutrition programs, and attempts at undermining unions. But they will help low-income people get, and move, their money faster, reducing the strain that comes from living paycheck to paycheck but not actually knowing when the funds in your paycheck will be accessible.