Bernie Sanders delivered a big speech in New York today on Wall Street and the economy – arguably his signature issue – and we’ll have more on his remarks on tonight’s show. But there was one topic the Vermont senator raised that’s worth singling out. From the transcript:
“[We] need to give Americans affordable banking options. The reality is that, unbelievably, millions of low-income Americans live in communities where there are no normal banking services. Today, if you live in a low-income community and you need to cash a check or get a loan to pay for a car repair or a medical emergency, where do you go?“You go to a payday lender who could charge an interest rate of over 300 percent and trap you into a vicious cycle of debt. That is unacceptable.“We need to stop payday lenders from ripping off millions of Americans. Post offices exist in almost every community in our country. One important way to provide decent banking opportunities for low income communities is to allow the U.S. Postal Service to engage in basic banking services, and that’s what I will fight for.”
To be sure, as Sanders supporters know, this isn’t exactly a new part of his policy platform. But it’s a really interesting idea that’s worth broader consideration.
There is, not surprisingly, a concerted push in the opposite direction. Rand Paul, for example, argued as recently as November that he’d consider doing away with the Postal Service altogether, even though the Constitution explicitly lists this as a governmental benefit (Art. 1, Sec. 8).
Sanders has a much better idea: let’s not only keep post offices, let’s also expand the role they can play in a community.
The Atlantic had a good piece on this in the fall:
…Sanders’s idea is quite sensible. “Postal banking” – which just means that post offices run savings accounts, cash checks, and perform other basic financial services – is common in most of Asia and Europe, and only about 7 percent of the world’s national postal systems don’t offer some bank-like services. Postal banking is a really good way to reach people who haven’t had access to standard savings accounts. One estimate figures that more than 1 billion people have used post offices for making deposits.The reason why this would be so useful in the U.S. is that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the population has to rely on check-cashing or payday-lending services, which in some places charge usurious rates that send people into spirals of recurring debt.
What’s more, for much of the 20th century, post offices used to serve as a local bank. The Washington Post noted a few months ago that from 1911 to 1967, “customers could walk down the street to the post office with their money and deposit it in a savings account there.”
In an official report last year, the USPS inspector general endorsed the idea of bringing these services back. The Post added, “The report argued the Postal Service should consider not only opening savings accounts again, but also expanding into short-term loans and debit cards as well.”
I don’t know if Sanders is going to be president, but I do know this is a part of his platform that deserves greater recognition. If the senator’s critics have come up with strong arguments against Post Office banking, they’ve kept the arguments well hidden.