Public Policy Forum Blog

Despite article, some areas in the region lack banks

From the sound of this week’s Journal Sentinel article entitled, “Bank branches proliferate in state,” our community streets are being practically taken over by bank branches. The president of Community Bankers of Wisconsin is quoted as saying “There’s no doubt Wisconsin is very bank-heavy.” But count the banks in certain areas of Milwaukee, and you get a decidedly different story.

A report released just two weeks ago highlights the marked lack of banking options in northwest Milwaukee. The Federal Reserve and Brookings Institution report, “The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America,” includes case studies from 16 high-poverty communities across the country, each chosen to illustrate different facets of the poverty story.

The boundaries of the Milwaukee area they studied were based on Census data tracts. With a poverty rate nearly five times that of the rest of Milwaukee’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), the area includes all or part of the Sherman Park, Metcalfe Park, Uptown, Washington Park, Walnut Hill, Midtown, Martin Drive, and Cold Spring Park neighborhoods, covering parts of the zip codes 53205, 53206, 53208, 53210, and 53233.

This northwest area of Milwaukee, with over 23,000 residents, has just two bank branches (three banks lie just over borders of the study area). The area, however, is heavily populated with nontraditional financial service providers such as currency exchanges, check cashing, pawnshops, and payday lenders.

The report explains that an absence of basic banking services is linked to higher costs for financial transactions for working class and minority communities. While traditional financial institutions provide residents with access to cash, savings and capital, conducting financial transactions through nontraditional providers not only costs more, the report claims, but offers fewer ways to save money and plan for long-term financial management.

Residents in northwest Milwaukee are also likely to pay more for credit: In 2005, 65% of the area’s mortgages originated as sub-prime or other high-cost loans, compared to 26% in Milwaukee’s MSA.

The report identifies the myriad challenges related to concentrated poverty facing northwest Milwaukee, including high rates of returning ex-offenders, unemployment, and jobs that disappeared or moved to the suburbs. Local nonprofit programs working to improve the area are also highlighted along with some noteworthy successes.

While the newspaper quotes a Franklin resident exclaiming “Not another bank!,” the article’s juxtaposition with the recent Brookings Institution report underscores one of the many differences between inner city Milwaukee and other areas of southeastern Wisconsin.