Out of work and living on a $189-a-week unemployment check, Rob Linville needs to watch every penny. Lately, he has been watching too many pennies disappear into the coffers of the bank that administers his unemployment check via a prepaid debit card.
The state of Oregon, where Linville lives, deposits his weekly benefits on a U.S. Bank prepaid debit card. The bank allows him to make four withdrawals per month free of charge. After that, he must pay $1.50 for each visit to the ATM and $3 to see a teller. Managing his basic expenses, including rent, bus fare and groceries, typically requires more than four withdrawals, he says. Unexpected needs -- Linville recently bought a sport coat for $20 to prepare for a job interview -- entail more. He's afraid to withdraw his full benefits in one shot, knowing that the bank could sock him with a $17.50 overdraft fee if he exceeds his balance. So he pulls out small amounts of cash as he needs it, incurring about $15 in fees in the last two months he says.
"I'm so broke," Linville said, his voice expressing resignation that this is simply how the world works. "But I don't really have any other options."
Across the nation, people receiving a range of state-furnished benefits -- from unemployment insurance and food stamps to cash assistance for poor families -- are facing similar options and reaching the same conclusion. In 41 states major banks and financial firms have secured contracts to provide access to public benefits via prepaid debit cards. And banks are increasingly extracting hefty cuts of these funds through an assortment of small fees. U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and other institutions hold contracts to distribute these benefits on prepaid debit cards.
When Bank of America announced plans to charge regular banking customers a $5 monthly fee to use their debit card created a wave of public criticism. But the lesser-known fees attached to prepaid debit cards are already extracting money from the most vulnerable Americans -- those unable to pay their bills and feed their families without public help -- in the midst of stubbornly high unemployment and soaring rates of poverty.
"The big banks have actually figured out a way to make unemployed workers a profit center, one that only grows as things get worse," said Angela Martin, executive director of Economic Fairness Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group for low income and poor families.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Bancorp, the parent company of U.S. Bank, said unemployment recipients are clearly informed about the fees that pertain to their debit cards. She added that the cards provide a convenient and economical service, because they allow holders to use them to buy goods at stores and withdraw cash back without incurring a fee.