An Overlooked Gesture, An Overlooked Heritage

It was a sad day in America's news media this year when reporters across the country completely overlooked the fact Congress opted to commemorate International Credit Union Day two weeks ago by ending the government shutdown. They really took that "Unite For Good" theme seriously, and I can only imagine what Congress has planned for 2014. I'm sure whatever it is we all agree it will be good for the nation.

The shutdown brought to light once more just how fragile are the financial situations of many Americans, even those considered to be squarely middle class. Government jobs may not be the highest paying positions in the workforce, but they're steady, usually life-long, and come with a solid benefits package. And yet as we saw, as soon as the shutdown caused the first paychecks to go missing, many people were in trouble.

We've all seen and Credit Union Journal has reported on various national surveys and studies showing the rainy-day savings funds most Americans have wouldn't cover a light drizzle (talk about an enduring symbol, by the way: that Little Man Under the Umbrella logo from the 1920s may be outdated in design, but not in meaning). Those surveys come to life and are made real by events such as the shutdown and the sequester and every time a manufacturing plant in this country padlocks the gate.

Not Just For Kids

Fittingly, in the weeks leading up to International Credit Union Week there were scores of credit unions offering affected members various emergency loan programs, many priced at 0%. CUNA, for instance, provided U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) with a letter outlining the relief being offered by 19 different credit unions to help those in need of "furlough assistance." Many of those assistance programs were featured in news reports nationally, as well, proving that doing good can indeed be good business and PR.

Now, with the shutdown over-or at least over until the next shutdown-it's a good time to think about renewing education/information efforts aimed at getting members to at least put a little something away in savings. Perhaps even get involved in some of the more formalized savings contests we've seen in numerous markets. Financial Ed, after all, isn't just for those high school classes.

* Speaking of the shutdown, according to various national opinion polls, when it comes to Congress, Americans are 1) Angry, 2) Frustrated and 3) Fed Up. So what can we expect in the 2014 elections? Why, that 90% of the incumbents will be re-elected, of course. Those angry, frustrated and fed-up Americans may be disgusted by Congress itself, but amazingly often not with their own congressional rep or senator. And you may need to take off that white hat for a moment when reading this, but CUs aren't immune to playing a role in this whole disconnect. That money CUs raise for the PACs more often than not goes to the incumbent. And why wouldn't it? He or she isn't too worried about Googling the number of the moving van company.

* And, finally, a last note on the shutdown. Much has been invested by CUs this year to vigorously fight any attempt to revoke the CU tax exemption. CUNA even estimated that up to one-million Twitter users had been exposed to its #DontTaxMyCU and "Don't Tax Tuesdays" campaigns. All of that is great, but it feels a little like calling out the National Guard to fight the threat from Canadian tourists. The CU community has been calling up its own forces even though there isn't now and hasn't been any real, actual threat to the CU tax exemption.

In a rare tribute to bipartisanship, members of Congress at NAFCU's Congressional Caucus in September, for example, tripped over one another to get on stage and express their support for the exemption (see Money, PAC above). And in more recent weeks the "Don't Tax" message has fallen on not-so-much deaf ears as nonexistent ones. Many in D.C., including the IRS, were at home.

And I'm not suggesting this is the reason for the "Don't Tax" campaign that has become a priority, but it has successfully managed to do one thing: change the conversation. When's the last time you heard anything about that decade-long drive to get MBL relief from Congress?

It's A Start

* Mention CU volunteers and board members and talk turns pretty quickly to either of two subjects: Anecdotes from CEOs being driven crazy by one or more of them; or board compensation. A topic that has faded from the radar is the fading presence of any volunteers on state and national trade group boards. Now, CUNA has at least now nominally added a volunteer to its board with the addition of John Sackett, a board member at Royal CU in Wisconsin.

That seems a solid first step in restoring representation for one of the pillars of CU uniqueness that are always being spotlighted whenever needed. But it's also a bit of a half-step, as Sackett will attend board meetings but will not have a vote. Still, it's a perspective worth hearing; let's hope that it's heard.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at frank.diekmann@sourcemedia.com.