WASHINGTON -- Most banks and thrifts offer basic banking services to the poor in their communities, according to a Consumer Bankers Association study.

About 95% of banks offer basic accounts, and 75% do not impose eligibility requirements, according to the study, which queried 147 of the roughly 10,000 banks and thrifts nationwide.

Basic -- or lifeline -- accounts are cheaper than traditional checking accounts, allowing limited check-writing for low or no monthly fees.

"The accounts are there, they are affordable, they are widely available, and I think the banks have hit the challenge head-on," said Joe Belew, President of the Consumer Bankers Association.

Defining |Basic'

But consumer groups don't think banks are doing enough. "Probably a majority of banks offer some kind of basic banking account," said Deepak Bhargava, legislative director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Sometimes even those accounts are out of reach for the poor, he said.

"It's all in how you define what |basic' means," Mr. Bhargava said.

For example, many basic accounts have a $25 minimum balance.

"Most people who are low-income draw down to zero every month," he said.

But Mr. Belew replied, "If it's a $25 minimum balance, they ought to take a look at what they are spending at check cashing stores."

Balance Requirements

According to the CBA survey, 93% of banks require minimum balances on their basic banking accounts. But of those which do, the average balance is $202, the survey said.

Institutions that answered the survey had $9.9 billion in assets on average. They charged $3.14 a month on average for the basic accounts.

Most institutions surveyed - 88% - said their basic accounts were widely used by the poor, while 12% said they were not well-utilized by low-income people.

Many banks also cash government checks for people who do not hold an account there. The survey showed that 72% of banks and thrifts cash them, and that about half of those do not charge for the service.

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