LOS ANGELES - Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder undoubtedly takes great pride in his knowledge of the research on bank lending to minorities and the disadvantaged.
But when it comes to firsthand experience with poor people, the Princeton-trained economist, who spent most of his childhood in Long Island and now lives in an exclusive Washington neighborhood, admits to being a neophyte.
"You naturally tend to live in a cloistered environment," Mr. Blinder said.
The week before last, Mr. Blinder stepped outside of his protected world to take his first excursion through the Los Angeles inner city.
What he saw was a far cry from the places he spends his time: He was told that in some of the L.A. neighborhoods more than 40% of residents had incomes below the poverty level.
The trip was arranged by the Greenlining Institute, an activist group for lending to minority and low-income communities.
Sitting in an air-conditioned bus, Mr. Blinder spent three hours on the tour, accompanied by a coterie of specialists in lending to the poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
Other Fed governors have taken similar excursions to stay in touch with the need for and results of policies like the Community Reinvestment Act.
This was the first for Mr. Blinder, who joined the Federal Reserve Board last year.
Mr. Blinder said his goal was to pick up "anecdotes" that could help him oversee fair-lending regulations as a member of the Fed's community affairs committee.
"I hope to see the other side of CRA," Mr. Blinder said.
The bus rolled through the areas known as Pico Union, Korea Town, South- Central, and Crenshaw. Along for the ride were fair-lending proponents Carlton Jenkins, chief executive of Founders National Bank; Susan Howard, senior vice president of community reinvestment for Bank of America; and Linda Griego, president of Rebuild LA, and others.
They stopped at a supermarket that was rebuilt with the help of low-cost bank loans after the 1992 riots sparked by the Rodney King case. The store now appears to do a thriving business.
Though the bus passed a handful of bank branches, the fair-lending proponents repeatedly spoke of how the areas on the tour were underserved.
Mr. Blinder said he had to be careful not to draw any overarching conclusions. Nonetheless, he said he was struck by how check-cashing outlets appeared to clearly outnumber bank branches.
"These people should be in banks," Mr. Blinder said, noting that check- cashing stores charge steep fees.
But at least one advocate of increased lending in South-Central seemed to be skeptical of the impact a tour like this could have on a policymaker like Mr. Blinder. Speaking later at a dinner hosted by the Greenlining Institute, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat who represents a portion of South-Central, warned, "We have seen these tours before. We call them the looky-Lou tours."
Ms. Waters called on banks to do more to help the inner cities.
The representative, who is known for an especially feisty brand of liberalism, added, "Let me say this to those of you who get uncomfortable when I come around: There are a lot of people in this country who are angrier than I am."
And she warned that a time could come when the poor and disenfranchised occupy the banks and shut them down.