NBC News: A town with no bank how Itta Bena, Mississippi, became a banking desert

NBC News, June 15, 2019: A town with no bank: How Itta Bena, Mississippi, became a banking desert

ITTA BENA, Miss. — Shawn Robinson, 50, has a view from his front stoop that he often finds more interesting than what’s on TV. From the doorway of his building on the edge of Itta Bena’s town square, Robinson can see people come and go from this struggling Mississippi Delta town’s only no-fee or low-fee ATM.

In Itta Bena, population 1,828 and likely declining, the four other ATMs sit inside gas stations and charge $5.25 to $7.50 per transaction. So, the demand for the most basic financial services at an affordable rate is such that on one or sometimes two days a week, Hope’s ATM runs out of money.

Banks — where they are, who they lend to and on what conditions — are a key lever in the American economy. Yet branches are closing at a rapid pace, with more than 3,800 shuttering since 2017. Most of those branches closed in overwhelmingly nonwhite urban neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Las Vegas, but rural communities have also struggled. In some, like Itta Bena, the one or two banks that used to exist are gone.

“The bank branch is to local economies what the debit card is to your wallet — a key point of contact to the financial system and the way a large part of the population accesses non-predatory financial services,” said Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an association of community development organizations.

“Apps are great,” Van Tol continued. “Nobody denies that. But there are, believe it or not, some important things that can’t be accomplished on your cellphone.”

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