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Quietly, as we’ve approached the presidential election season that will produce a new leader for the nation, U.S. credit union membership has been increasing every year since 2010.
Why? Some are looking for a better interest rate on a car loan. Some are drawn to the involvement of credit unions in local communities. Many are disgusted by megabanks whom they feel don’t care about their customers and are looking for the farthest thing from mega-banking (short of stuffing cash under the mattress).
WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY WALLET?
There may be philosophical reasons for this shift as well. In the wake of the financial crises that triggered the Great Recession, stories of corruption among big banks such as Chase, Citigroup and HSBC began to rise to the surface.
Americans began to look more closely at where their money was going.
No matter your political views, it’s clear the issue of where our money goes is central to this presidential campaign season. Bernie Sanders held on admirably in his primary battle with Hillary Clinton because his message about what he feels is an unfair distribution of national wealth struck a chord with many young voters. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but the main reason he is the presumptive Republican nominee is because his supporters rally behind his anti-trade rhetoric and believe his claims that he will bring corporate business back to U.S. workers.
Every candidate seems to agree on one thing: American economics are not as they should be. They are asking us to imagine possibilities for an ideal financial world.
THE CREDIT UNION MODEL
Credit unions are increasingly capturing the imaginations of Americans because:
- Members are equal.
As cooperative organizations, credit unions give members control of policy-making decisions. Each member has a single vote regardless of the size of their account.
- Members raise up neighbors.
Because account holders must have ties to the community the credit union serves, members know that their money is ultimately being invested in the lives of individuals and families within their community.
- Institutional success is measured by member success.
In the credit union system, there are no distant shareholders earning dividends on the backs of customers crushed by mountains of bad debt. The cooperative is only as strong as its members.
Credit union membership is growing because Americans are recognizing that to be a credit union member is to be a part of financial democracy in action. It means embracing an alternative to systems that in the wrong hands lead to mismanagement at best and criminal abuse at worst. It means putting your money squarely into your own hands and sharing it with your chosen community instead.
As a writer who wants to support an environment of shared success with my neighbors, clients and colleagues who run local nonprofits and small businesses, all this sounded good to me. This is why I became a credit union member.
THE LOCAL END OF A CONTINUUM
I should note that I also utilize a regional bank for certain accounts. The argument here is not that there is anything wrong with patronizing a bank, because there are plenty of good, community-building banks out there. Rather, the point is that financial institutions are on a continuum.
On one end are megabanks with very little interest in, or understanding of, my local community. To them, my mortgage is one of a thousand pieces of paper to be bundled up, bought and sold several times over to investors gambling on either the likelihood I’ll pay it off or eventually default. (I’m currently reading The Big Short and feeling more than a little perturbed. Can you tell??)
On the other end are financial institutions more apt to recognize that there are real people behind their balance sheet numbers. Those real people are their neighbors: you and me.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
Web and mobile app access, nationwide shared branching and broader membership requirements removed any objections I ever had to becoming a credit union member. If you’re still skeptical, start here, then reach out to one of your local credit unions to learn more.
Businesspeople like you and me are the economic generators of our community. All I ask is that we take a moment to consider whether we’re participating in systems that support it or those whose success depends very little on ours, and whose interests are elsewhere.
(Also, read The Big Short. Let’s get coffee once we both finish it.)