Bankers at last week's American Bankers Association convention in San Francisco had to be depressed. Everywhere they looked there were signs that the public simply doesn't love them.

It all started when they walked into the convention center and found a copy of the trade group's magazine sitting on their chairs with a ghastly looking banker next to the headline "How consumers see you."

It got worse once the convention started. Projected onto giant screens were the results of a Gallup Organization poll, which found that only three out of 10 Americans believe bankers care about their communities. Fewer than a quarter believe banks are financially healthy and only 32% believe institutions participate in civic events.

The ABA used these results as a springboard to attack what it said is the industry's perception problem. It brought in former White House adviser David Gergen to lead panel discussions on what bankers need to do differently.

There was only one problem with the ABA's approach - the study actually contained some surprising news that didn't surface at the convention.

The surprise is hidden 41 pages into the formal study, innocuously labeled "Table 3." Gallup found that people with the lowest incomes had the best opinion of the banking industry. That's right: The low-income group loves you at lot more than your wealthy customers.

For example, 51% of those with less than $25,000 in income strongly agreed that banking was an honorable profession while only 37% of those making between $45,000 and $75,000 felt similarly.

A surprising 40% of low-income people said bankers are involved in civic activities and are committed to meeting their financial needs. Wealthier customers scored banks as much as 17 percentage points lower.

The numbers held when Gallup asked about loans - 36% of those with low incomes strongly agreed that bankers objectively make credit decisions compared with about 25% for those in higher income brackets.

Finally, 44% of those with low incomes said bankers care about their communities. The next-highest income group was percentage points lower on that question.

What does this mean? The ABA isn't talking.

Thomas G. Strohm, executive vice president at Meridian Bancorp and the group's point man on the study, repeatedly declined to comment on the results in "Table 3."

But Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the industry consulting firm ISD/Shaw Inc., said low-income people appreciate their local bank more than rich people who can afford to turn to competitors like Merrill Lynch.

The findings also should cause bankers to question the clout of community groups, Ms. Shaw said, because the study indicates these groups do not have as much popular support as they claim.

"It says bankers have a relatively positive image with the very groups that activists argue despise them," she said.

The numbers also show that bank programs geared toward low-income groups are successful, said Donald Mullane, executive vice president at Bank of America. He noted that half of his bank's real estate loans go to low- income and moderate-income people. "It doesn't surprise me," he said. "We work at that."

Granted, the numbers overall aren't stellar. A large segment of the public doesn't think bankers care. But the numbers indicate that bankers have a satisfied and potentially stable customer base at their fingertips. Maybe next time bankers complain about CRA or inner-city branches, they should remember who their true fans are.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.