Study: Welfare recipients spend millions on ATM fees

California's welfare recipients are collectively losing millions of dollars each year to ATM fees.
March 25, 2014 8:35:24 PM PDT
In California's welfare program, known as CalWORKs, more than 96 percent of recipients receive their money in the form of a debit-type card. Gaining access to that money is costing taxpayers and welfare recipients millions.

A new report out says welfare recipients in California spend $19 million a year on ATM fees to access their benefits. That's money that's intended to provide basic necessities for California's poor.

Dominique Hudson is just 18 years old and the mother of 3-year-old Xavier.

The high school senior is juggling school with a new grocery job and caring for her son.

Her welfare check is 50 percent of her monthly income.

"It's like a really big help for me like financially with my son and everything until I can get on my feet," Hudson said.

She says she spends an average of $10 a month on ATM fees to access her money.

That's money she could use each month for five additional bus rides to get to and from work.

"It's terrible. It makes it kind of harder for me," Hudson said.

A study by the California Reinvestment Coalition says California's welfare recipients spend $19 million annually on ATM fees.

California Reinvestment Coalition spokesperson Andrea Luquetta authored the study.

"It shouldn't cost people a portion of their safety net grant just to access that grant in the first place," Luquetta said.

The report calls for banks, the state and the counties to work together to reduce those fees.

The California Department of Social Services says it asked banks to eliminate the surcharges, but the banks declined.

The California Bankers Association says there are already plenty of ways to avoid fees.

To that end, Alameda County has launched a financial coaching program.

"The financial coaching program that we pilot really does help people think differently about the decision that you make and the economic consequences that those decisions will have," Alameda County Social Services spokesperson Sylvia Soublet said.

Decisions like setting up a direct deposit, finding the right bank with the lowest fees and using the ATM's within your own network

But the money pass network used by CalWORKs is comparatively small.

Alameda County is particularly bad, with very few ATMs available in the money pass network.

CalWORKs recipients in Alameda County spend an estimated 730,000 annually on ATM fees.

That's five times more than San Francisco residents, where there are more network ATMs available.

"That does exacerbate the problem," Soublet said.

"The state can't do it by themselves, he county can't do it by itself and the banks can't do it by themselves. We need them to work in partnership," Luquetta said.

Hudson is in a financial literacy class and plans to enroll in direct deposit to help her avoid ATM fees.

"I actually just found out about that. They told me it would take about six weeks," Hudson said.

The California Reinvestment Coalition study says the application process to get CalWORKs to direct deposit benefits is a complicated one and called on counties to streamline the application process.

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