The Treasury Department announced Thursday that it will launch a pilot program to let consumers have their income tax refund deposited into a low-cost bank account.

The program is a way to use the tax refund season to serve the unbanked or underbanked. It will offer debit card access to low- and moderate-income individuals during tax season so that they could receive their refunds through direct deposit.

The Treasury also will test using the bank accounts for year-round service.

"Far too often, unbanked and underbanked Americans are forced to turn to high-cost alternative financial products — such as check-cashing and other services — that take a big bite out of the savings of those who can least afford it," said Michael Barr, Treasury assistant secretary for financial institutions.

"For many individuals," Barr continued, "a tax refund is the single largest payment that they will receive each year. That's why tax season is a great opportunity to deliver safe, low-cost financial products to the unbanked and underbanked that will help those Americans build stronger foundations for their financial futures."

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., an estimated 9 million households do not have bank accounts and 21 million households are underbanked.

The Treasury program will begin during next year's tax return season. It said it will begin soliciting eligible taxpayers in early 2011, using direct mail and partnerships with the private sector to include offers with paychecks and pay stubs.

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