Years of Advocacy by Public Benefit and Consumer Advocates Result in Historic Victory that will Save Public Benefit Recipients Millions of Dollars
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 6, 2019 – A coalition of California community groups and social service providers today announced that Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) will now provide free ATM access nationwide to low-income families who receive safety net benefits via state-issued electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The three banks join dozens of smaller banks and credit unions that provide ATM access without surcharges in California. Previously, Citibank was the only top national bank to waive the fees across the country.
(The full list of banks that waive the fees in California, those which do not, and how much they charge, is available here: http://www.ebtproject.ca.gov/Library/Cash_Access.pdf)
Studies by the California Reinvestment Coalition describe how California EBT card users have been paying more than $20 million per year on fees to access ATMs, paying the fees out of the meager benefits their families receive meant to cover basic needs, averaging about $500 per family. Recipients have reported driving or used public transit to cross long distances, especially in rural parts of the state, to access the relatively few free ATMs that existed.
Working with advocates, the California Department of Social Services in 2016 bid out for a new contract to administer the state’s EBT program. The winner, Fidelity Information Services, agreed to secure free access to two major ATM networks. The new contract also removed fees that were charged by the previous administrator for ATM withdrawals beyond four per month, making California the first state in the nation not to pass through the cost of EBT administration to families for accessing their benefits.
“We are so proud of all of the advocates, state staff, contract administrators, and especially aid recipients, and the bankers who came together to make this possible,” said Paulina Gonzalez-Brito, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition. “Ultimately, it is the right thing to do to make sure families get the full use of every dime they need rather than allowing taxpayer funds to be siphoned off to pay ATM fees. We hope other banks step up to follow the lead of these banks and that California’s leaders continue to advance policies that ensure access to affordable, non-predatory financial services for all Californians regardless of income.”
“California’s budget leaves the state’s poorest families with incomes below half of the federal poverty line,” said Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and a national expert on EBT. “We urgently need to change that, but in the meantime, we can be proud that the state has made progress on reducing the unnecessary burden of bank surcharges for these families. We are grateful to the Brown and Newsom administrations for their diligence, and to the EBT and banking industry partners who made this happen.”
Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association said, “Our member agencies, which directly serve our clients by determining eligibility and grant amounts, were in strong support of these fees being waived. We are so glad to see this accomplished, so our customers can keep these funds in their accounts and use them to support their families instead of paying fees to banks.”
Kevin Aslanian of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations and former aid recipient himself stated, “When I got aid, it came in a check and I could walk into the bank and cash it for free. This money is supposed to pay for rent, toilet paper and other necessities, not cash access fees.”
“It’s about time major banks stop charging ATM fees for EBT withdrawals. Wealthy people aren’t charged to withdraw funds to purchase luxury goods, but our poorest families have spent millions in fees just to put food on the table.” said José Cisneros, Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco and founder of the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment. “I urge all banks and credit unions to follow Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citibank in eliminating these unconscionable fees.”
Under state law, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) benefits must be distributed using the EBT system. CalFresh, referred to nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), benefits are required by federal law to be distributed only through EBT. Most counties also choose to have General Assistance or General Relief payments distributed using the EBT system. Millions of Californians receive basic-needs food or cash assistance via EBT.
California’s EBT system has some of the most comprehensive protections and financial empowerment tools in the country, much of which is due to the efforts of the Brown Administration in partnership with County Human Services Agencies and local and state partners. Still, despite several years of concentrated efforts from advocacy groups to reduce the amount of ATM surcharges that families pay to access their basic needs, CalWORKs grants for surcharges have hovered at about $20 million per year for nearly a decade. That is a significant state investment considering that those funds are intended to meet the basic needs of California’s poorest families with children, whose benefits average less than 40 percent of the federal poverty level.
The organizations who came together to make the changes possible operated under the name “The EBT Avengers” and include:
Alameda County Social Services Agency
California Coalition of Welfare Rights Organizations (CCWRO)
California Community Colleges CalWORKs Association (CCCCA)
California Reinvestment Coalition
California State Association of Counties (CSAC)
Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
County Welfare Directors Association of California (CWDA)
Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley
Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
Legal Services of Northern California
Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA)
National Consumer Law Center
San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment, City and County of San Francisco
Supervisor Wilma Chan, Alameda County Board of Supervisors
Western Center on Law and Poverty
California EBT Client Website. Available at: https://www.ebt.ca.gov/caebtclient/reciplogin_client.jsp