Jul 13, 2017

By Katie Shultz

The Financial Diaries – Can tech truly alleviate the middle class crunch

Recently we had Rachel Schneider, SVP at the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), join us on Breaking Banks to share details on her new book The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty, co-written with Jonathan Morduch from NYU Wagner. While many outside of the US might think of the US as one of the richest countries in the world, the reality is that financial inequality has produced a land of opportunities where a large percentage of the population have serious day-to-day financial challenges, least of all getting access to day-to-day financial services.

Much has been said about inequality in terms of wealth in the US, but the day to day impact of this means low and middle-income (LMI) families face financial challenges more affluent Americans can’t even imagine. Can you afford $400 in case of a family emergency? Last year, the Federal Reserve published a study that almost half (46%) of Americans would struggle to meet emergency expenses of just $400.

The Financial Diaries draws on research from the U.S. Financial Diaries (USFD), a joint study commissioned by NYU Wagner’s Financial Access Initiative (FAI) and CFSI, on the financial well-being of 235 low and middle-income families as they navigate through a year.

Looking at Financial Inclusion data with fresh eyes

In our segment, Rachel shared how the USFD came out of research that began not in the US, but in the developing world. In the early 2000s, a new methodology was used to study the poor by interviewing small families in South Africa, Bangladesh, and India. Researchers collected reams and reams of data by studying hundreds of households every two weeks over the course of a year. Throughout these series of interviews, families shared their financial transactions, spending habits, and lifestyles.

“It’s interesting because of a lot of what we learn is globally applicable – people struggle with the same kinds of issues globally around the world,” said Rachel Schneider, SVP at CFSI.

For the USFD study, the main goal was to give a diverse picture of the American experience. Field researchers worked with 20-30 families in 10 different locations in the US, meeting with households every few weeks gathering data on their financial lives, such as what was borrowed, spent, saved, earned, and gifted.

“The one criteria is that every family had to have at least one working person,” Rachel said. About a quarter were roughly middle-class, a quarter was near the poverty line, and the other half in between. “It’s really an attempt to show what financial life is like in America today from a lot of different perspectives.”

In her book, The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty, Rachel shares with readers an authentic glimpse into the financial lives of Americans from all across the US. Schneider’s conclusion in the book is clear. Income volatility is a massive issue in the US. Each family’s monthly income was found to fluctuate around 20% for five months out of the year.

The book opens with the story of a typical lower-middle-income American family, Becky and Jeremy, who struggle with extreme income volatility. Jeremy works on 16 long haul trucks and gets paid on commission. During the summer and winter months, there’s a lot of work but in the spring and fall, their income is much lower so Becky stockpiles consumables.

“It’s a lot easier for them to do this workaround rather than using a savings account. So these workarounds reflect some gap in our financial services. There’s something about a savings account that didn’t give her the kind of discipline she knew she needed. She said it’s just too easy to spend the money,” said Rachel.

The difference between Financial Inclusion and Being “Banked”.

It’s clear that while being “banked” seems like a laudable goal for an economy like the US, the idea that access to the banking system will suddenly resolve the issues LMI face, is clearly not realistic. It turns out, that despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the bottom half of the population appear to be more like citizens who are living in a developed nation, with respect to their financial health. This is a staggering conclusion.

The book and it’s underlying research shines a light on the multitudes of ways people struggle to deal with their finances. Data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence will continue to better personalize financial services and improve the lives of those who need help the most. Access to real-time earning and payments will go a long way in the future.

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