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'Banking Deserts' Spread Across Low-Income Neighborhoods


You may have heard about food deserts in urban neighborhoods - places without supermarkets or access to healthy food options. Here's a related problem: banking deserts. Losing a neighborhood bank can leave residents without basic financial services, and that can be especially hard on the elderly. From our member station WYSO, Lewis Wallace reports on a recent branch closure in Dayton, Ohio that creates a banking desert nearly five miles wide.

LEWIS WALLACE, BYLINE: In a strip mall parking lot on Dayton's west side, a young guy jumps out of the car to use the ATM next to a shuttered PNC bank branch.

MICHAEL BOOKER: From here I couldn't tell you the closest bank. I mean, how do you not have a bank?

WALLACE: Michael Booker lives nearby, and he happens to work as a bank teller in a suburb. So when he heard this PNC closed in August, he was concerned.

BOOKER: I know what we offer as a bank. I know the products and services that are beneficial to the community.

WALLACE: Services like home loans and financial advice. PNC's closure leaves this part of town a banking desert.

CATHERINE CROSBY: So we had our jobs leave and so then we had our grocery store leave and now we had our bank leave.

WALLACE: Catherine Crosby is with the City of Dayton Human Relations Council. She says not having a bank makes it hard to build in an area devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

CROSBY: There continues to be this disinvestment in that side of town. And so people are saying, hey, when is the bleeding going to stop?

WALLACE: PNC says it closed the West Dayton branch because more customers are using digital banking. But almost all PNC's recent net closures are in areas where people make less than the national median. And it's not just PNC: while the total number of bank branches nationally has actually grown since 2006, the number in lower income areas continues to shrink.

PNC officials wouldn't go on tape, but they say the company doesn't take closings lightly, although they won't reveal their criteria. Maria Coyne is with KeyBank. She says branch closings are just a part of the business.

MARIA COYNE: And any good retailer would tell you, in a year when you're opening stores, you're probably also closing stores, because you're going to follow population patterns and you're going to follow demand, and ultimately, you know, clients vote with their feet.

WALLACE: Coyne won't say whether KeyBank would consider opening a branch in west Dayton. And Catherine Crosby says that is what residents in this part of town desperately need.

CROSBY: There is still a community there that needs banking services. We just need to figure out what are the right banking services.

WALLACE: The city has talked to banks about setting up a virtual branch, with a teller you talk to through a video screen or maybe having a mobile bank branch stop through the neighborhood - kind of like a food truck, but for banking. But meanwhile, people like 86-year-old Jessie Gooding, who's had a PNC account for 40 years, just have to travel further.

JESSIE GOODING: I'm not computer literate. Young people can make those changes easier than old folk.

WALLACE: Sitting in his quiet ranch house, he says losing the bank branch poses a hardship, but it's not a new one. He's been watching services trickle out of this part of town for decades.

GOODING: Just all the businesses left. That's sad, but that's what's happened.

WALLACE: Just up the road, a sign on the old PNC door has pictures of moving boxes and directions to a new location, about six miles from Jessie Gooding's house. Visit us there, the sign says, for new ways to help you reach your goals. For NPR news, I'm Lewis Wallace, in Dayton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lewis Wallace comes to WYSO from the Pritzker Journalism Fellowship at WBEZ in Chicago, where he reported on the environment, technology, science and economics. Prior to going down the public radio rabbit hole, he was a community organizer and producer for a multimedia project about youth and policing in Chicago. Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., Lewis spent many years as a freelance writer, anti-oppression trainer, barista and sex educator in Chicago and in Oakland. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Northwestern University, and he has expanded his journalism training through the 2013 Metcalf Fellowship for Environmental Journalism and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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