AmEx is promising to use technology to help tackle the plight of America's 70 million underbanked citizens; establishing an innovation lab, setting up a fund for startups working on financial inclusion, and even sponsoring a documentary.
America's unbanked and underbanked spent $78 billion on fees and interest in 2011; $30 billion in overdraft fees. Meanwhile, 93% of branch closures over the last five years have been in low-income neighbourhoods.
"Technology is rapidly changing the face of financial services, yet tens of millions of Americans are relying on cheque cashers, pawn shops, money orders, and other outdated ways to manage and move their money," says Dan Schulman, group president, enterprise growth, AmEx.
The card giant's financial innovation lab will open in June, promising to give researchers focused on financial inclusion, counsellors who work with the underserved, and technologists, an opportunity to work together on sponsored research.
It is also establishing the Financial Inclusion Initiative to invest in early-stage startups using technology for things like providing greater access to capital, developing new credit building models, enhancing personal financial management and promoting savings.
Finally, the company has put money into a documentary called 'Spent: Looking for Change' which follows a handful of people as they navigate their way through an antiquated financial system and explores how technology, innovation and education can improve their lot.
A trailer of the film, which will premier this summer, was shown at SXSW this week:
Says Schulman: "It's time for change. It's not a silver bullet, but technology should be used to close the gap, not widen it. We want to help modernize traditional banking and advance the next generation of products. By supporting new technology as well as the work of researchers and promising startups, I believe we can bring more people from the margins to the mainstream."
AmEx has had some success in targeting the underbanked, partnering retail giant Wal-Mart on the popular Bluebird alternative to traditional bank checking accounts.
Other non-banks are also entering the fray. Earlier this year telco T-Mobile unveiled a new service which offers current account-style features, while the US Postal Service has been urged by watchdogs to consider offering financial products such as pre-paid cards to the underbanked as a way of shoring up its own balance sheet.