Image: Luann Algoso

Some 17 million Americans don’t have bank accounts, which makes everything from depositing paychecks to paying utility bills a hassle. Many aren’t unbanked by choice. Some are stuck on bank “black lists” and don’t know how to get off; others can’t afford high fees and balance requirements.

Clawing back and becoming “rebanked” is a daunting task for low-income Americans, since the alternative — a patchwork of check-cashing storefronts, payday lenders, prepaid cards and money orders — is an expensive burden on already-strained finances. Many don’t know where to turn for help.

That’s why the U.S. Treasury Department is looking at how local governments, nonprofits and the financial services industry can do a better job connecting with and helping the unbanked get banked. Last month, the agency rolled out a new initiative, the Financial Empowerment Innovation Fund, which will fund research studying how to improve access to and education about financial services.

“I wasn’t getting any advice …. I was too ashamed to tell anybody I had all this debt,” said Luann Algoso, a Portland, Oregon, resident and graduate student. “It wasn’t a topic of discussion I wanted to bring up with my roommates even though I was close with them.”

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