By Rochelle Gorey is the CEO of SpringFour.
Research into financial health has long shown that low- and middle-income families are one unexpected expense away from an emergency. During COVID-19, many have experienced this reality firsthand. In April, unemployment in the United States soared to the highest it had been since the Great Depression, with 23 million people out of work. By September, many had found work again, but there were still 12 million people unemployed – twice as many as before the pandemic.
Food instability is a growing issue. Quarantining and social distancing have caused or exacerbated mental health issues that require medical attention. Funeral costs for the families of the 200,000 people we’ve lost are high. Bills, debts, and mortgages continue to go unpaid. When people have a hard time making their payments, it’s often because something is amiss in their lives – and during the pandemic, that is the case for millions.
Now more than ever, financial institutions need to step up for their customers. People already trust their banks to protect their assets. They should be able to trust their banks for more comprehensive resources to improve their financial health and get back on their feet, too.
Providing empathy and relief
A survey conducted in July 2020 found that over a quarter of low- and middle-income Americans have been furloughed, let go, or had hours at work reduced due to COVID-19. A staggering 30% are unable to pay their monthly bills on time, and even more have delayed nonessential household purchases and decreased credit card spending.
To help their customers improve their financial standing in the wake of such an immense blow, banks must consider the customer as a whole person. A person who isn’t paying their bills or repaying their debts is not oblivious or careless. They are not paying because they cannot.
That person may need resources that go beyond loans or financial advice. Among the most pressing needs for those affected by COVID-19 are food security, continued access to healthcare and prescription medications, and help finding employment. Others may need affordable childcare or elder care, relief from utility bills, or assistance filing taxes. Before these basic but pressing needs are met, debts cannot be repaid.
A stopgap stimulus payment hasn’t helped enough
Many people received the one-time U.S. government stimulus payment and some have successfully applied for unemployment benefits, but those stopgap measures have fallen short of the help people actually need. Almost half of survey respondents have said that they won’t feel financially secure until they have more than $4,000 available in an emergency savings account.
Despite the need, 40% of respondents are unaware of reputable local nonprofit and government organizations that can help. Yet, more than 80% of respondents say that they trust their banks to provide financial guidance and support. People in the midst of a financial crisis are more vulnerable to predatory lenders and dangerous scams, and banks’ recommendations would provide them with much needed financial assistance and peace of mind.
There are local government and nonprofit resources that exist to help ease the burden, and banks will prove their added value by directing their customers toward them. Even as some resources are exhausted, others are launched to replace them. This isn’t just true during the pandemic, either. During any crisis or natural disaster, people need more help. New costs spring up, and people fall into debt or delinquency. When that happens, collection agents are at the ready to collect, but they can also be at the ready to help.
Helping the customer helps the bank
When a bank employee is able to successfully direct a customer to a helpful local resource, they are able to take pride in the work they do and have confidence in their ability to provide good customer service. Confidence and pride means less employee turnover and increased loyalty to the employer. It also means building a brand that customers engage with and remain loyal to because they received help when they needed it.
For the customer, getting a recommendation for a vetted nonprofit or government resource that helps them address their financial needs makes it possible for them to move one step closer to getting back on track. With the help of those resources, more of their finances are freed to improve their financial health and pay back their debts – another win for the financial institution.