I'm at an ACE Cash Express, in search of a PIN number for the H2O cell phone service. H2O is not the best bargain. But its 3G capabilities might work well with a cheapie cell phone that I’m testing as part of my interest in phones as e-book readers for the poor.
Some 20 people stand in line ahead of me. NonHispanic whites are a minority. The light-brown-skinned man in front of me is maybe four and half feet tall. Genetics or childhood malnutrition?
When I finally reach the lady behind the glass, she tells me her computer system is down.
She does not know if ACE even sells H2O PINs (regardless of what phone company's Web site said when I clicked on “Virginia” and typed out “Alexandria”).
Welcome to the world of the direly cash-strapped. Thank goodness I'm just visiting it.
At ACE, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the customers own cell phones. Should I be surprised? Of course not. If you read LibraryCity regularly, you already know about the $20 Android phone I turned into an e-reader. It’s still a phone, too.
Cell phones are no longer luxuries for America's poor. So many toil long hours or hold multiple jobs and are doing what they can to keep up with their spouses and kids. You might say that check cashing services and the payday loans are like cell phones. They provide a certain kind of mundane convenience for the poor, rushed and tired.
And therein lies an opportunity for public libraries if the check cashing services will oblige.
What if their walls didn’t just carry the usual commercial ballyhoo? Suppose colorful posters also promoted cell phones as a way for the poor to find books to read themselves—or read to their children.
VIP glamor in a good cause
The posters could direct the customers of check cashing services to their local libraries for help in getting e-books on their phones, eventually with the encouragement of cell phone book clubs. Ideally the posters could show sports and entertainment figures, the kind familiar to ACE patrons, reading popular books off their phones. In Africa, literacy workers have even experimented with posters promoting individual books, complete with scannable QR codes to make downloading easier (not such a bad idea for posters in check cashing stores, either).
From time to time—within the limits of budget, formidable in many cases—librarians might even do face-to-face outreach in the cash checking stores. And if they also did F2F at other locations such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, then so much the better. In Bexar County, Texas, the all-digital BiblioTech public library already plans to promote its e-book services at the local DMV, just as it now has a branch in the jury rooms at the courthouse. Let’s see more of this! Just like much-visited government organizations such as social service agencies, check cashing stores are potentially library “hotspots.” At all those places you’ll find so many of the people who could most benefit from public libraries. The more reinforcement the poor get at multiple locations, the more chance they will visit libraries and take their children.
Would ACE and competitors go along? I don’t know. When I asked the lady behind the window if the Alexandria library could put up a poster at her Cash Express store, she instantly shrugged off the idea, saying that company policy absolutely banned anything but the usual advertisements on the wall. That was when I visited the store a week or so ago. This morning, however, while looking over ACE’s corporate site, I ran across references to an ACE Book Day, including a mention of 50 ACE volunteers reading to some elementary schoolers. A little hope?
Literacy efforts as PR
Apparently ACE sees literacy efforts as good PR (other causes listed here). ACE needs it. I don’t know what the profit margins are in the check cashing business, but Claes Bell, a Chartered Financial Analyst and a columnist for Bankrate, has written that the services are bad deals for typical consumers. ACE, at the time of his 2011 article, was charging three percent per check cashed. He’s appalled, and I myself wonder why no percentage information is on the related page on the ACE Web site. And why “Cash All Your Checks at ACE”? All? What if free or lower-cost options exist elsewhere?
Just the same, Bell acknowledges people living hand to mouth may have no other choice “because they’ve run afoul of” ChexSystems “or have some other circumstance that disqualifies them for a checking account.” More than a few operators of check cashing stores would say that ACE is dealing with a high-risk, irresponsible group and deserves the three percent, even though I personally wonder about that steep a fee.
I’m not going to churn out any extended analysis here since I lack all the facts. If nothing else, however, the issues actually go far beyond morality and responsibility at the personal level. Experts such as Emmanuel Saez have documented how our tax system and economy in general are stacked against the nonrich. Tens of millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, lack money for anything but the bare necessities, and maybe not even those. Yes, the cash-strapped can try to save for emergencies. But what about six-figure medical costs even if insurance pays for most of them? Or auto accidents, divorces and other unforeseen assaults on purses and wallets? The walls between the American poor (at least covered by Medicaid and the like) and the our middle class (a long way from the Ozzie-and-Harriet nirvana) are more porous than ever.
To one extent or another, then, an unfortunate need exists for check cashing and payday loan services and others of the kind that ACE offers, despite my concerns over the sizes of charges. And as long as ACE and brethren are out there, we should encourage them to support libraries and reading in all forms.
I hardly expect most of the cell phone owners in the ACE lines to become rabid library fans and devoted readers of wisdom from financial experts, or candidates for admission to Harvard or Yale. Still, the best libraries have a knack for raising the expectations of both adults and their children. With this in mind, ACE and competitors should let the library posters go up for the benefit of customers who are open to self-improvement through e-books and in countless other ways. And if check cashing stores can train the ladies behind the glass to talk up libraries and books, especially when young parents come to the windows, then so much the better for everyone. In fact, try especially hard to get the cashiers reading off their cell phones. They’ll spread the word. Fifty ACE literacy volunteers—well, that was a nice little start. Now let’s see the industry work with librarians and others to do a lot more.
Tip: If you want an instant PIN number for H20, go to Pinzoo. Would that I have had known this earlier! H2O claimed I could not get the PIN unless I ordered directly or went to a brick-and-mortar location.
Detail: The H2O store locator on the Web is flakey. Sometimes it brings up the ACE store at 308 South Van Dorn Street, sometimes not. I guess I drew the wrong end of the straw.
Follow-up: At least off Amazon right now, you can’t buy new models of the Lightahead LA-910T cell phone, perhaps because I mentioned it in the Slashdotted post highlighting a $20 model (still sold new as of this writing). Too bad. Customers’ experiences have varied, but so far the 910T has been a good value for me. Consider the Lightahead LA-906T, which sells for $120 new, a little more, but offers 3G speeds on more cellular services and is also unlocked. I found a 906T refurb for $90 and will be trying it out. Since I’m not a heavy cell phone talker—reading is something else—it makes sense for me to use unlocked phones and pay-as-you-go plans. Your own needs may differ.
(LibraryCity.org photo at the start of this post. CC licensed.)
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