Bill Bynum: A Personal Banker To The Poor - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the ability to lend money can be the first step toward a region’s economic recovery. 

By Meghan Walsh

Crocodile-colored marsh reaching as far as the eye can see. Fields of white cotton tufts floating above the ground for miles. Colonial plantations, dilapidated church buildings and the sporadic town center, with all the attendant fixtures, from gas stations to food marts.

But not a Wells Fargo in sight. 

Like the food deserts that plague inner cities, the Mississippi Delta may as well be the Sahara when it comes to banks, leaving its inhabitants, largely poor and black, prey to predatory lenders. Except, that is, in places in the South where one man, Bill Bynum, has livened the stark financial forecast by setting up a

But the 56-year-old Bynum — who grew up in a trailer in North Carolina during an era when schools were still segregated and whites would throw rocks at his home’s windows — doesn’t waver easily. He’s a solid man, with a broad frame, gray goatee and formidable stare, so it’s not hard to see why people listen to him, including three presidents, the latest of whom named him chair of the Consumer Finance Protection Board in 2014. “He was one of the first real pioneers in this work,” says Michael Barr, a professor of law at the University of Michigan. And today Bynum sees himself as a civil rights activist as much as a banking pioneer, one who considers that many of today’s racial tensions are the result of income inequality. 

Speaking via Skype, he says he got into this business largely by coincidence, when, after graduating from college and waiting to get into law school, he happened to get a job with a company that gave loans to worker-owned businesses. Then, in 1994, he and a friend headed to the Delta with $1.5 million from the Pew Foundation to start a lending program that would become the foundation for his empire. 

Of all the places in need of help, the desolate swamps of the Delta may need it most. Here, there have always been limited fiscal resources, but with the recession, banks have fled like never before. A Bloomberg report shows that since 2008, banks have closed nearly 2,000 branches, 93 percent of which were in low-income communities. In a rural outpost that may have had only one bank to start, that means residents no longer have access to any financial services.

Unless they go to a payday lender, as many of Carol Burnett’s low-wage employees at the Moore Community House (a nonprofit that provides early childhood education) used to have to do. Burnett says i 

Allison Muirhead for OZY.

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