By March 31, the Treasury will propose the details of an electronic account banks may offer noncustomers who get federal benefits, Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr. told lawmakers Wednesday.
"We will prescribe a uniform design for the accounts," Mr. Hawke told the House Banking Committee's financial institutions and consumer credit subcommittee. "No institutions will be required to offer these accounts, however."
The industry has been waiting months to find out how much the government will allow banks to charge for these accounts and how many free automated teller machine withdrawals they must provide.
At the hearing, Citicorp vice president Brian Kibble-Smith argued for a low-cost account similar to one for federal benefits recipients in Texas. For a $3 monthly fee, a Citicorp unit provides 20,000 Texans one ATM withdrawal a month and unlimited point of sale purchases. Additional ATM transactions cost 95 cents and a written monthly statement costs $1.
Under a 1996 law, the government must begin delivering most of its benefits electronically by Jan. 1, 1999.
Banks that offer the accounts will be required to accept an unlimited number of electronic federal deposits and permit an unlimited amount of point of sale purchases using debit cards, he said. Customers making debit card purchases also would be permitted to withdraw extra cash free of charge.
The accounts are intended for the approximately 10 million people, many of them senior citizens and veterans, who receive federal benefits but do not have bank accounts. The bulk of those people are needy individuals who cannot afford traditional checking accounts, Mr. Hawke said.
The Treasury-approved account will not be available when electronic delivery is scheduled to start in 10 months. Consequently, Mr. Hawke said, benefits will only be delivered electronically if a recipient requests it.
That pleased John Dyer, the Social Security Administration's acting principal deputy commissioner who also testified Wednesday. "We believe this is the most feasible approach because it imposes the least burden on the public and the Social Security Administration," he said. In January, Social Security officials asked the Treasury to delay implementation, arguing it will be less expensive to switch all benefits transfers when low-cost accounts become available.