The media and political discussions surrounding who credit unions are supposed to serve experienced a transition since the House Ways and Means Committee hearings on tax-exempt justification.
However, there is one signature concept that cuts through the issue du jour; a credit union exists to serve its members as defined and limited by its respective charter. As a result of the hearing and subsequent parsing of membership structure, the issue in the media and industry response has shifted. It went from competitor complaints about liberalizing the FOM concept (expanding membership opportunities) to questioning and defending who we are not serving. We went from "how many" to "who," focused on their financial situation. The threshold consideration is "modest means."
Although no one has defined it-probably just one of those DNA things we are all supposed to recognize when we see it-modest means is center stage with media and politicos. In terms of the general public, there has not been a significant concern. It tends to be personal and local. With understandable pride, they talk about when the credit union helped them, the deal they just got, and what it is doing for all members. We certainly encourage and reinforce those perspectives.
It is the insiders, volunteers and senior staff who are aware of the issues. They are generally frustrated at the lack of apparent recognition of the effort, programs and general outreach designed for all segments of the membership.
The media and politicians get hung up on the buzz, "what about those of modest means, what are you doing for them?" To this we respond with a variation of the signature concept; our credit unions and those across the country are doing the job for which they were chartered, serving all those they can, their members.
We welcome opportunities to further expand service to others in underserved, low-income and modest-means neighborhoods. It is not credit unions that have required legislative mandates to meet their complete, service obligations. We have actually been restrained from expanding service to low, moderate and underserved areas. Our for-profit competitors complained bitterly and filed a lawsuit to prevent us from serving small employee groups. They now complain when we ask to include low-income and underserved areas in a FOM. Service to all members is available through the credit union.
The issue is not avoidance or unwillingness to serve those of modest means, but rather limitations on who can be served, legally under the current charter. It is those who have complained the loudest that have made every effort to limit our ability to serve. They now accuse us of failing our mission. NOT SO! We serve our members well, and we are willing to welcome and serve many more of those recognized as modest means into membership. Credit unions are a willing vehicle for improving the financial prospects of those of modest means, but the opportunity to provide that service must be available.
Thomas Gaines is president of the Tennessee CU League.