Crypto puts U.S. and El Salvador in the same boat

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A man walks past signs reading "Bitcoin accepted here" outside a street stall where the cryptocurrency is accepted as a payment method in San Salvador, El Salvador October 4, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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WASHINGTON, Oct 18 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The United States and El Salvador have something surprising in common. Polls show Hispanic and African-American people are the top American owners of cryptocurrencies. That's in part because of discrimination and lagging access to traditional financial services. Those are also among the better reasons why the Central American nation last month turned to bitcoin as legal tender. It’s a loss for conventional banks.

Traditional U.S. lenders have themselves to blame for turning off people of color. Among those with annual incomes under $50,000, 23% of Hispanic and 13% of Black individuals said they had been denied service, compared with 6% of whites, according to an Edelman survey. Of those who earn more than $100,000 a year, 68% of Black Americans said they had experienced at least one negative interaction with financial services, like being asked to supply more proof of employment than required, compared with 36% of white counterparts.

One result is that less well-treated groups find alternative platforms more attractive, including cryptocurrencies. A recent Harris poll for USA Today showed that 23% of Black people and 17% of Hispanic respondents own digital assets, compared with 11% of white Americans. Meanwhile, 37% of the underbanked also bought bitcoin and the like, compared with 10% of those with full banking access, according to Morning Consult. Getting investment exposure to bitcoin will become even easier from Tuesday, with the launch of the first U.S. bitcoin futures exchange-traded fund.

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El Salvador’s adoption of bitcoin is unlikely to be copied widely, least of all the United States. But it is driven by similar trends. President Nayib Bukele said the move will help his citizens save $400 million a year in remittance commissions and provide financial services for residents who don’t have a bank account. A huge downside is that digital assets can be risky investments read more , whether for El Salvadoreans or Americans.

Established U.S. banks are missing out on giving these folks safer options. Children of color now make up more than half of all kids in the United States. More than 30% of the population is expected to be non-white by 2060, according to the Census Bureau. With a more inclusive approach, financial firms could make inroads even with standard banking options. They could also learn from newer platforms like Robinhood or Venmo, which have an advantage in attracting people of color and also offer crypto services. For now, they are letting themselves be disrupted.

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- ProShares is scheduled to launch a bitcoin futures exchange-traded fund on Oct. 19, the company said on Oct. 18. It’s the first such U.S. ETF. A number of planned funds that would invest directly in bitcoin, not in traded futures, remain in regulatory limbo.

- A majority of Black Americans said they faced discrimination in the financial services industry, including mortgage companies, credit card firms and banks, according to an August 2021 study by Edelman. The report also said 23% of Hispanics and 13% of African-Americans with annual income under $50,000 were denied service, compared with 6% of white individuals in that same wage bracket.

- Separately, a Harris poll showed that 23% of Black Americans reported owning cryptocurrencies, along with 17% of Hispanic respondents, compared with 11% of white individuals, according to surveys in June and July given to USA Today.

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Editing by Richard Beales and Amanda Gomez

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