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updated: 7/5/2018 6:37 AM

It can cost more for a checking account if you're black or Latino, study says

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There is a cost to being black or brown when it comes to banking, according to a New America recent report.

It can be more expensive to obtain loans -- as recent fines against megabanks Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase for discriminating against minorities have demonstrated.

Now a recent report from the Washington think tank suggests it can also cost substantially more for services as basic as opening and maintaining a checking account.

The culprit? Small community banks whose wholesome image and limited geographic scope have allowed them to largely escape scrutiny.

"If we care about racially disparate patterns in costs and fees and want to eliminate those in the financial system, our oversight has to include small and community banks where these practices are prevalent," said Terri Friedline, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan who co-authored the report with Jacob William Faber, a New York University sociologist.

Community banks in predominantly black neighborhoods require an average minimum opening deposit of $81, compared to $69 in white neighborhoods, the researchers found.

It also tends to be more expensive to maintain an account in a black neighborhood, where banks require an average minimum balance of $871 to avoid fees. The required minimum balance is $749 in Latino neighborhoods and drops to $626 in white neighborhoods.

Checking accounts generally serve as an entree into the economy. The higher costs can have far-reaching consequences for black and Latino families who typically earn less than their white counterparts.

Higher charges and higher minimum balance requirements limit their economic power by tying up more of their earnings in checking accounts where they cannot be used, the report said.

The average white consumer needs to keep just 28 percent of a paycheck deposited to avoid a fee or account closure. For African Americans, it's 60 percent and for Latinos 54 percent.

The country's pattern of residential racial segregation may also exacerbate discriminatory banking practices by creating "easily identifiable, geographically organized local markets" and warrants further investigation, the report said.

"It's another example of how segregation inflicts costs on people of color," Faber said. "We have this very limited understanding of what racism and discrimination is. We're almost always thinking about a person burning a cross or discriminating against someone in a job interview. But arguably more damage is done in communities of color by the way society is set up. It's normal day to day practices."

Researchers surveyed a random sample of more than 1,300 small banks around the country and measured the results against the racial and income demographics of the communities in which they are located.

The conclusions do not indicate that any particular bank discriminates against black customers by charging them more than white customers -- simply that banks in black and Latino neighborhoods tend to charge more, on average, than banks in white neighborhoods.

"Regardless of intent, you have this disparate impact that itself is discriminatory," Faber said.

The study also does not examine the practices of big banks, whose history of discriminatory lending has been well documented.

"A checking account is a pretty universal product and one where you don't expect there to be fluctuations," Friedline said.

Friedline said that the discriminatory patterns could be alleviated by stronger financial regulations and consumer protections. But Congress recently rolled back reporting requirements on loans for 85 percent of banks and credit unions, saying they were an undue burden on small community institutions.

"We won't even be able to know what these practices look like in the lending market, let alone for checking accounts, even though they are this gateway into participating in the economic system," Friedline said.

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