Helping the unbanked
Aaron Houston for The New York Times
Germania Hernandez activates a Sigo card for
Buenaventura Pacheco Lopez in New Brunswick, N.J.
Immigrants Wary of Banks Put Faith in New Card
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: December 30, 2006
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Since coming to this country eight years ago, Jose Dimas has bristled at the $8 fee he often must pay to cash his paycheck. He stews over the $10 charge he faces whenever he wires $150 home to his parents in Mexico.
Daunted by the requirements to open a bank account, Mr. Dimas had long kept his savings hidden in his apartment, and had worried that his money would be stolen.
But now Mr. Dimas, 32, a food preparer at a catering company, has a new tool that has eased his discomfort with all things financial. It is a special debit card, provided not by a bank but by a nonprofit worker center here, enabling hundreds of immigrants without checking accounts or credit cards to keep their cash somewhere safer than beneath their mattresses. The card also makes it easier to shop at stores as well as online.
“This card is better for me for a lot of situations,” Mr. Dimas said. “You don’t have to pay those big charges to send money back to Mexico. And it will be much safer. I don’t like keeping my money in my home. Someone could go steal the money.”
The worker center, called New Labor, normally focuses on preaching about worker solidarity and safety, but after seeing all the hassles that immigrants face with finances, it pioneered the new debit cards. In a survey of 480 immigrants who were members of New Labor and similar worker centers, 47 percent said they had no bank accounts.
Since November, New Labor has provided cards to 200 immigrant members, including some who are here illegally. Three other centers — in Hempstead, N.Y., Chicago and Los Angeles — have begun offering the cards as well, and organizers say they hope to make them available to tens of thousands of immigrants at 140 worker centers nationwide within the next few years.
Several financial experts said the new debit cards — named “Sigo,” combining the Spanish word for “yes” and the English “go” — are an ideal tool for 30 million workers, both foreign-born and native, who lack bank accounts and often face high check-cashing fees and frustrating obstacles in paying bills.
Sigo cards can also help so-called “unbanked” immigrants develop financial sophistication and eventually move into the banking system, these experts said, perhaps to obtain a mortgage or small business loan.
“It’s not just about reducing your financial costs and making your financial life easier, it also helps give you opportunities to get ahead,” said Jennifer Tescher, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago, which provided a grant to develop the program. “It saves you time and makes more products and services available to you.”
Like department store gift cards, the Sigo card has stored value, but unlike those cards, it is reloadable, meaning more money can be added. Users can reload the cards by having paychecks deposited directly into their accounts or by making cash deposits — for fees ranging from 50 cents to $5 — at a local pharmacy or worker center.
The Sigo card requires a PIN number and is affiliated with MasterCard, and can be used wherever MasterCard is accepted.
posted by Steve @ 1:46:00 AM