The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s recent biannual report indicated nearly 95% of U.S. households — approximately 124 million — were banked last year, the highest figures since the survey was first conducted in 2009.

But the report, which was compiled from data gathered in June 2019, months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, included a postscript warning: The pandemic is likely to contribute to an increase in the number of unbanked households.

Jacksonville, Florida-based TIAA Bank hopes its financial literacy initiative will help quell that rise in communities hit hardest by the coronavirus.

“The pandemic has amplified the disadvantages faced by most vulnerable communities that we serve,” said Joseph Hernandez, senior vice president and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) officer at the $42 billion-asset TIAA Bank. “The lack of internet access, inadequate technology and distance learning solutions, and the absence of after-school and summer programs for kids … [the pandemic] hit them the hardest.”

Hernandez said the bank thinks providing financial literacy programs in schools could help keep the nation’s underserved communities banked.

TIAA Bank’s Money Matters program, a public-private partnership it launched with education technology company EverFi in 2018, targets grade-school students early in their cognitive development years to help them build a strong foundation for financial wellness, Hernandez said.

The 12-week course includes lessons on banking, saving, setting financial goals and budgeting, and is available in English and Spanish for students in more than 100 schools across Florida, Puerto Rico and Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Through this effort, we take our bank associates and volunteers and we teach students critical financial skills through various classroom visits and signature events that we do throughout these markets,” he said.

The bank associates and volunteers also train teachers to introduce the content to the students.

“At the end of the day, what we hope to accomplish by targeting such a young population, is they go home and they teach their family members what they’re learning about financial literacy and financial wellness initiatives,” Hernandez said. “What we were hearing from teachers and parents alike is that they were coming home and talking about what they were learning, which helped encourage dinner-table discussions around financial literacy and financial wellness, budgeting and savings and checking, which showed us that the program is working.”

Banks can use financial literacy programs to receive credit for the CRA, the anti-redlining law passed in 1977 to encourage banks to meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate.

TIAA Bank, however, has chosen to deploy the program outside of its assessment areas, in addition to the areas where it has a physical presence.

TIAA Bank doesn’t have a branch presence in Puerto Rico, but Hernandez said the bank wanted to focus on an area that was still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

“We saw a need in that community,” he said. “And we saw the gap that we were able to help fill that other financial institutions weren’t capable of doing.”

The pandemic has forced the Money Matters program to shift to an entirely digital environment, and Hernandez said bank associates and teachers have adapted.

“We’re working with teachers and schools to continue the program through adding it to the content and the curriculum that they’re requiring students to complete on a regular basis even while they’re at home,” he said.

The FDIC said it will conduct its next survey in June 2021, with a report expected in 2022.

Hernandez said he hopes the FDIC’s next report will reflect the efforts that banks like TIAA are making to reach the unbanked and underbanked.

“In this current environment, what is encouraging to see is that financial institutions are deploying innovative strategies to help meet the needs of a number of different communities, whatever they may be,” he said.

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