Glenn Smallwood does not have a cellphone, computer or credit card. Nor does he have a bank account. And that’s exactly the way he likes it.
“I guess you could say I’m an old fuddy duddy,” Smallwood, 63, a semi-retired insurance salesman in Clearwater, Fla., told ABC News. “I’m set in my ways. I don’t want my money in a bank. I keep my money in my pocket.”
So when Smallwood received a notice from the U.S. Treasury Department informing him that as of March 2013, his Social Security checks would be directly deposited into his bank account—or he could enroll in the government’s Direct Express Debit MasterCard program –he was decidedly unhappy.
“I don’t think the federal government has the right to tell me that I have to have a checking account or a debit card,” Smallwood said, adding that he cashes checks at Wal-Mart, pays his rent by money order and has no plans–or desire–to stop.
Smallwood lives in one of the nation’s 10 million households that are unbanked, according to figures from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
While waivers are automatically granted for anyone who was 90 years old or older on May 1, 2011—as well as people living in remote locations or those who are mentally incapable of handling their own affairs—Dick Gregg, the fiscal assistant secretary of the Treasury, acknowledged that these waivers are rare. “Most individuals that receive checks will drive to a local bank to cash them and individuals with mental impairments will designate a representative payee that will sign up for electronic payment,” he said.
He added that the initiative to have all benefits payments made electronically will save an additional $1 billion in taxpayer money over 10 years. It is also safer, faster and more reliable than receiving paper checks, which can be lost, stolen or delayed.
But John Runyan, executive director of Consumers for Paper Options, an advocacy group funded by “paper-based communications interests” — which includes the Envelope Manufacturers Association, the American Forest & Paper Association and paper companies — believes the mandate is unfair to seniors like Smallwood who don’t want to change. ”Our goal is to get the federal government to recognize fully that there is certain type of information that should continue to be provided on paper if the consumer wants them, and that should be the consumer choice,” he told ABC News.
Nancy Taylor, 77, a former printer in Ypsilanti, Mich., agrees. A few months ago Taylor’s daughter suggested her mother switch to direct deposit to avoid the “last-minute rush” in February. Taylor did so begrudgingly.
“I didn’t want to change,” Taylor told ABC News. “I’m still uneasy with it. It may be that I’m a crotchety old woman, but it’s a change to my routine that I don’t like. It’s my money and it’s an infringement on my rights by the government, saying I have to change.”
Taylor also worries about fraud. The Treasury Department’s Gregg said that the proportion of fraud in the Direct Express card payments is significantly lower than paper checks. But in a September 20 testimony before Congress, the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration said that it had received more than 19,000 reports about questionable or unauthorized changes to recipients’ direct-deposit information.
“I don’t trust computers, I don’t trust the Internet,” said Taylor. “I had a computer given to me several years ago, and it was so frustrating I gave it away.”
AARP has not directly endorsed the new mandate. But Cristina Martin-Firvida, AARP’s director of financial security, told ABC News that “Retirees and other Social Security beneficiaries need to know that they can trust their earned benefit will be safely delivered without risking loss of benefits or high fees.”
But Smallwood is unconvinced. He is even willing to have the Treasury Department subtract a dollar from his benefit check to cover the fee it costs to mail him his check.
“They’re telling me I have to get a bank or card in order to keep my benefit,” he said. “For 40 years it’s been my choice not to have any of that. And I don’t intend to do so any time in the near future.”