“The Real Reason the Poor Go Without Bank Accounts”: relationships

A public policy professor worked four months at a check cashing business and found check cashing services offer several features that banks do not:

At commercial banks, the account itself often maintains the relationship between the customer and the institution. I might not be satisfied with my bank, but it’s an enormous inconvenience to switch everything over to a new one, and there is no guarantee any other bank will be more efficient or better…
The glue at RiteCheck is the customer/teller relationship. I interviewed 50 RiteCheck customers after my stint as a teller and, when I asked them why they brought their business to RiteCheck instead of the major well-known bank three blocks away, they often told me stories about the things the RiteCheck tellers did for them. Nina, who has lived most of her life in Mott Haven, told us that her mother had been very ill and that the RiteCheck staff had called to ask about her. “So we can be family,” Nina said. “We know all of them.”

Being a regular at the check casher also brings more tangible benefits. Marta, another regular, came to my window one afternoon with a government issued disability check to cash. When I input the number from her RiteCheck keytag into my computer, the screen indicated she owed RiteCheck $20 from every check she cashed. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned to Cristina for advice. I learned that Marta had cashed a bad check awhile back, and that RiteCheck had worked out an arrangement in which she could pay RiteCheck back in installments…

Many factors—cost, transparency, convenience—go into the choice consumers make between a bank and a check casher.  Atmosphere and the attitudes of the staff are only one component, but this piece of the puzzle may be more important than we thought. Like the famous TV song goes, “You want to go where everyone knows your name.” If policy efforts to move the unbanked to banks are to be successful in the long run, banks need to remember they are a service industry involved in one of society’s most important and basic relationships.

It sounds like the check cashers serve as a kind of community institution that customers can count on for social support as well as ongoing relationships. It isn’t just about the ability to access money; it also includes the flexibility to have give and take, whether that means helping someone get by when money is tight or celebrating big moments (like births) together. Many large corporations don’t offer this kind of personalization, even as they might offer cheaper prices or certain goods. And what incentive do banks have to lend money with people with lower incomes? That is not where the big money is to be made.

At the same time, it would be interesting to see an attempt to quantify just how much this customer service is worth. Does this apply to other industries as well? For example, there has been a lot of talk recently about the surge of dollar stores who offer goods cheaper than Walmart. Why might relationships matter more with financial institutions than dollar stores or fast food restaurants?

Why more Americans are living alone

A new book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to explain why more American are living alone:

Despite these risks, more and more people all over the world have decided that living alone is their best option. In the United States, 31 million people—one in seven adults—live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28% of households. That’s up from just 9% in 1950. Americans may think of themselves as uniquely self-reliant, thanks perhaps to Emerson, but the trend is even more pronounced in other affluent countries…

Why are people making this choice? For the many women who outlive their husbands, healthy single older men are scarce. Young and old alike, meanwhile, recognize that family togetherness, when it is not wonderful, can be conflict-ridden and downright awful. Roommates, at any age, hold little appeal. Not least, people go solo because they can afford it. Living alone is a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent.

But people also seem motivated by a loss of faith in the very idea of family. Mr. Klinenberg quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that, as soon as people stop taking traditional arrangements for granted, “they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail.” Or as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it, today “one’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.”…

Most important, perhaps, is the increased value we place on autonomy. Since Dr. Spock, mothers and infants have departed from the age-old practice of sleeping together, and middle-class babies are now often placed in their own rooms. Swelling home sizes made this possible; from 1960 to 1980, the ratio of bedrooms to children in the average U.S. family rose to 1.1 from 0.7, so that nowadays parents and kids are rarely together in the same room—even for eating. Students increasingly expect a private room at college. Assuming that they do share quarters for a while after graduation, the move to an apartment of one’s own is now, writes Mr. Klinenberg, “the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming an adult.”

The review suggests Klinenberg thinks is a lasting trend but we’ll have to wait and see. What would it take for people to reverse the trend and have more people living in households or to want to take on the responsibility of having a family?

Perhaps Klinenberg doesn’t have the data to address this but I wonder how much people living alone interact with others – are they more involved in organizations, have higher levels of civic engagement, are more involved with others online, etc.?

It is interesting to think about this on college campuses – does anyone have numbers about how many college students do live in single rooms or how many would like to? Of course, few college students have ever lived with others in the same room when they arrive on campus so outside of marriage, this may be the only “normal” time for this to happen. If living in single rooms becomes a norm on campus, does this significantly alter the college experience?

What influences how residents feel about their communities: social ties

New research to be published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that how people feel about their particular community is not influenced by the community itself:

Prior to this research, many sociologists believed that certain community traits influenced how attached residents felt. That list of suspected factors included cultural heritage, levels of acquaintanceship, the pace of economic development, population density and habits of the predominant ethnic group.

Instead, the BYU researchers found that none of these dimensions of a locale produce a higher sense of attachment – or at least they don’t anymore.

“I take our findings to be part of the bad news of modernity,” said lead study author Jeremy Flaherty, who is completing a Ph.D. at BYU. “How people interpret their local community has probably changed substantially over the generations.”

While the researchers found that no characteristics of the community played a role, they did find that feelings of attachment develop if a person develops social ties where they live – and that usually takes time.

So it is not really about the community but rather the relationships one builds and the social standing one has in a community. This would fit with a lot of research in the last decade or so about community life in places where many would suspect there is not much community life. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh has written several books that show there is a strong community structure in poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. While outsiders would look at each community and see chaos or disorder, Venkatesh found a well-established social structure where people were still tied to each other.

I will be interested to read then how if it is really about social relationships, some people do come to have such attachments to particular places. Do they not find such social relationships elsewhere? Do these relationships then taint or influence their view of every community thereafter?

If this is the case, perhaps the “Best Places to Live” lists should include some new measures of things like friendliness, openness, and social ties within a community. Does the average new person who moves to the community become part of new social networks in a relatively short amount of time? Do neighbors know each other beyond just saying hello? And if people knew that some places were friendlier or more open than others, would that be a draw to majority of Americans or a detriment?

Japan’s difficulty in tracking people over 100 years old

Japan is known for having a high life expectancy: according to 2008 public data, the world’s life expectancy is 69, the US’s is 78, and Japan’s is 83. With this higher life expectancy, Japan has a large number of centenarians, people who are over 100 years old. But there is a problem: the Japanese government has had problems keeping track of this population group.

More than 230,000 Japanese citizens listed in government records as at least 100 years old can’t be found and may have died long ago, according to a government survey released Friday.

In August, the Justice Ministry ordered a review of records that found about 77,000 people who would be at least 120, and 884 people who would be 150 or older. The head count followed a flurry of reports about how elderly people are falling through the cracks in Japan as its population ages rapidly and family ties weaken.

In all, the survey of family registration records nationwide found that 234,354 centenarians were still listed as alive, but their whereabouts were unknown, the ministry said.

While this could be chalked up as simply a bureaucratic problem, the news story suggests these findings line up with concerns about how the elderly are treated in Japan. This then could be a larger issue that concerns social and family relationships and the fabric of Japanese society.