“Leapfrogging” to Digital Financial Inclusion through “Moonshot” Initiatives

The notion that new technological solutions can overcome entrenched exclusion from banking services and fair credit is quickly gaining widespread acceptance. But tech-based “fixes” often funnel low-income groups into separate, inferior systems and create new tech-driven divisions.

In July 2021, the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer launched the NYC[x] Moonshot: Financial Inclusion Challenge. This initiative seeks to deploy digital solutions to address inequalities in access to financial institutions. As the Chief Technology Officer stated, “Too many people have been left out of the financial system for too long. This disparity means that financial transactions … end up costing more for those who can least afford it.”

One in ten Americans are “unbanked,” meaning that they do not have a bank account. People of color are disproportionately excluded from traditional financial institutions. Banks consistently operate fewer branches in Black, Native American, and Latinx communities, creating “banking deserts,” while the practice of redlining continues. Poorly-regulated predatory financial institutions such as payday lenders, which impose higher costs than banks and trap customers in cycles of debt, are highly concentrated in these communities and take advantage of financial exclusion. In New York’s borough of the Bronx, over 49% of households are unbanked and high-cost lenders significantly outnumber banks.

Unequal access to banking means unequal access to fair credit. This compounds inequalities, as a poor credit record increasingly determines crucial outcomes, including higher interest rates on loans, higher insurance premiums, and difficulty obtaining employment or housing.

NYC is pursuing technology-based solutions to address these issues. The Moonshot initiative, which seeks proposalsutilizing breakthrough financial inclusion technology” to bring the unbanked into the financial system, follows previous tech-driven schemes. A recent initiative involved IDNYC, the city’s official identification card launched in 2015. This ID scheme had sought to facilitate access to banking by providing government-issued IDs to groups previously unable to open bank accounts for want of official identification; the ID is explicitly available to undocumented immigrants. However, shortly after its launch, the city’s largest banks dealt a blow to the IDNYC scheme by refusing to accept it as sufficient identification to open accounts. In response, the Mayor’s Office turned to technology. In 2018, it solicited proposals from financial firms to introduce electronic chips—the same smartcards used in debit cards—into the ID cards. This would allow IDNYC cardholders to load money onto their ID cards and make payments using these cards. Such reloadable cards are known as prepaid cards.

This proposed integration of identification and payment functions was not unique. In the U.S., the city of Oakland’s municipal identification scheme enabled cardholders to have their welfare benefits deposited onto the ID card and make payments with it. Also in California, the city of Richmond’s ID similarly functions as a prepaid card. In 2020, MasterCard’s “City Key” card, which combines official identification and payments, was distributed to low-income residents in Honolulu. Outside of the U.S., MasterCard was involved in adding electronic chips to national ID cards in Nigeria, and the Malaysian national ID also functions as a reloadable debit card.

But the proposal to incorporate smartcards into IDNYC was abandoned. Dozens of immigrants’ rights organizations warned that the integration of payment functions increased immigrant cardholders’ risk of surveillance and profiling. Adding the chip would lead to “massive data collection” by the financial technology firm brought into IDNYC and, because such firms are legally required to retain information about cardholders, undocumented immigrants’ data could be subpoenaed by the Trump administration. The Mayor’s Office accepted that these risks were fundamentally in conflict with the inclusionary goals of IDNYC and withdrew the plan.

While the proposal was abandoned, the narratives and driving forces behind it have intensified. Turning to a prepaid card system to “eliminate banking deserts” in NYC followed a well-established script that promises to “leapfrog” over deeply-rooted social problems using new technologies. The Gates Foundation, McKinsey, MasterCard, and others have long furthered this narrative that groups left behind by traditional financial institutions can be reached through innovative technological solutions which “leapfrog” banks. Bill Gates was famously quoted saying, “banking is necessary but banks are not”—and today, actors which are not banks, such as payment technology companies and telecommunications firms, are increasingly offering “financially-inclusive” services such as mobile money and smartcard solutions in explicit efforts “to ‘disrupt’… traditional banking services.” Prepaid cards especially seek to bypass banks: by their very design they operate without any link to bank accounts.

As such, these technological solutions funnel unbanked groups into a separate, “parallel banking system.” Prepaid cards do not provide access to bank accounts, so cardholders remain unbanked. This is an inferior banking product; cardholders do not gain the same access to the services and fairer credit that bank accounts enable. Financial inclusion persists, but the unbanked now have smartcards.

Further, the companies “disrupting” banking are usually not subject to the same legal obligations as banks, nor do they provide the same financial protections. Within these separate, technology-enabled payment systems for the unbanked, the extractivism and predatory practices that financial inclusion efforts are supposed to address re-emerge. NYC’s Chief Technology Officer had lamented that financial exclusion means that transactions cost “more for those who can least afford it”—but when Oakland launched its smartcard ID, the company running the prepaid function levied countless fees on cardholders, including $0.75 per transaction, $1 per reloading of funds, and a $2.99 monthly fee. The fees were higher than those of banks. Further, the insistence that electronic payments will solve financial exclusion is motivated by a desire to monetize new customers’ transaction data. Companies are racing to “capture the data of the newly ‘included’” and uncover the “financial lives of the poor” as a new market segment.

As the Immigrant Defense Project and others argued, turning IDNYC into a prepaid card would therefore “be perpetuating, not resolving, inequality in our banking system.” Within our work outside the U.S., we see the same technological solutions being embraced, all while they siphon low-income groups toward less-regulated, separate systems. For example, in South Africa and Australia, recipients of state benefits are forced onto prepaid cards not linked to traditional bank accounts. Still, “digital financial inclusion” through these technologies is being hailed as the solution to financial exclusion.

The 2021 Moonshot initiative appears to be based on the same ideals. The very notion of a “moonshot” is solutionist—it connotes a monumental (technologically-driven) effort to achieve a lofty goal. Official “launch” documents state that technology can “help solve the most pressing issues of people’s lives.” Rather than seeking to work with banks, the scheme turns to developers: the unbanked need “new options.” This focus on technology can obscure the root causes of financial exclusion—namely racism, discrimination, and predatory financial practices. “New options” will too often mean separate, inferior systems; and eschewing attempts to resolve inequalities within the “old options” leaves harmful practices—such as the linking of everything from housing to insurance with credit reports, continuing redlining, and the closing of bank branches without regard for those left behind—unaddressed. 

September 21, 2021. Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.