If the ex-perience of Bank One Corp. is any indication, banks could gain a wave of customers by offering electronic accounts to low-income people.
The Chicago banking company has opened more than 250 accounts under a nine-week-old pilot program that several community groups helped design, officials said.
"We were stunned," Mary A. Laraia, Bank One's senior vice president of community reinvestment. "We were going to declare victory if we got 75."
Bank's One success bodes well for banks that plan to offer similar accounts under a federal program unveiled last month by the Treasury Department.
As part of the effort to deliver government benefits electronically, the Treasury plans to contract with banks to provide accounts to the more than six million Americans receiving federal benefits who lack accounts.
If participating banks meet certain conditions, the government will pay them $12.60 per account to cover start-up costs and will grant Community Reinvestment Act credit.
Banks may not charge more than $3 per month for the accounts or require a minimum balance. Customers must also be permitted four free withdrawals per month. Additional deposits and interest payments are permitted, and fees may be charged for extra withdrawals or services such as automated teller machine card replacement.
So far, seven other banking companies have agreed to offer the accounts, including Bank of America Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co.
Malcolm Bush, president of the Woodstock Institute, an economic and community development group based in Chicago, said Bank One's initial success shows how the industry has underestimated the untapped markets in low-income communities.
"Some banks have made an effort to shape accounts for low-income people," Mr. Bush said. "But having the product is just part of the story. Some banks have the product but don't market it."
Bank One's program was spurred by an agreement last year between the Chicago CRA Coalition-a group put together by Woodstock-and First Chicago NBD Corp., which has since merged with Bank One.
In the Chicago area, 16% of all households and 38% of lower-income households did not have a checking account in 1998. Instead, Mr. Bush said, families without accounts usually relied on payday loan stores and other check-cashing outlets, which often charge high interest rates and fees.
Under the pilot, Bank One offers several types of accounts at three branches in poor areas.
All of them require a $10 opening balance and allow unlimited check writing and free use of Bank One ATMs. Some accounts are free, but others have monthly fees as high as $7, depending on the services offered. Only the accounts with fees of $3 or less would qualify for the Treasury's program.
Bank One is also offering inexpensive savings accounts to help customers achieve long-term financial goals and improve their credit profiles. Of the accounts opened under the program, about 40% are savings accounts.
The pilot is due to be evaluated after six months and then again after a year, Ms. Laraia said.
Although more time is needed to determine whether the accounts will be profitable, the bank may expand its program to other branches, she said. Bank One is also keeping a close eye on whether customers will stick with these accounts for the long term.
A 1996 federal law required the government to deliver all payments, except tax refunds, electronically by Jan. 1, 1999. However, subsequent congressional and consumer opposition forced Treasury to make the program voluntary.