checkcashingshotwithpeopleA sunny Saturday in Alexandria, Virginia—even if the room I’m in is Dickens-grim.

I’m at an ACE Cash Express, in search of a PIN number for the H2O cell phone service. H2O is not the best bargain. But its 3G capabilities might work well with a cheapie cell phone that I’m testing as part of my interest in phones as e-book readers for the poor.

Some 20 people stand in line ahead of me. NonHispanic whites are a minority. The light-brown-skinned man in front of me is maybe four and half feet tall. Genetics or childhood malnutrition?

When I finally reach the lady behind the glass, she tells me her computer system is down.

She does not know if ACE even sells H2O PINs (regardless of what phone company’s Web site said when I clicked on “Virginia” and typed out “Alexandria”).

aceh2oWelcome to the world of the direly cash-strapped. Thank goodness I’m just visiting it.

At ACE, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the customers own cell phones. Should I be surprised? Of course not. If you read LibraryCity regularly, you already know about the $20 Android phone I turned into an e-reader. It’s still a phone, too.

Cell phones are no longer luxuries for America’s poor. So many toil long hours or hold multiple jobs and are doing what they can to keep up with their spouses and kids. You might say that check cashing services and the payday loans are like cell phones. They provide a certain kind of mundane convenience for the poor, rushed and tired.

And therein lies an opportunity for public libraries if the check cashing services will oblige.

What if their walls didn’t just carry the usual commercial ballyhoo? Suppose colorful posters also promoted cell phones as a way for the poor  to find books to read themselves—or read to their children.

VIP glamor in a good cause

The posters could direct the customers of check cashing services to their local libraries for help in getting e-books on their phones, eventually with the encouragement of cell phone book clubs. Ideally the posters could show sports and entertainment figures, the kind familiar to ACE patrons, reading popular books off their phones. In Africa, literacy workers have even experimented with posters promoting individual books.

From time to time—within the limits of budget, formidable in many cases—librarians might even do face-to-face outreach in the cash checking stores. And if they also did F2F at other locations such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, then so much the better. In Bexar County, Texas, the all-digital BiblioTech public library already plans to promote its e-book services at the local DMV, just as it now has a branch in the jury rooms at the courthouse. Let’s see more of this! Just like much-visited government organizations such as social service agencies, check cashing stores are potentially library “hotspots.” At all those places you’ll find so many of the people who could most benefit from public libraries. The more reinforcement the poor get at multiple locations, the more chance they will visit libraries and take their children.

Would ACE and competitors go along? I don’t know. When I asked the lady behind the window if the Alexandria library could put up a poster at her Cash Express store, she instantly shrugged off the idea, saying that company policy absolutely banned anything but the usual advertisements on the wall. That was when I visited the store a week or so ago. This morning, however, while looking over ACE’s corporate site, I ran across references to an ACE Book Day, including a mention of 50 ACE volunteers reading to some elementary schoolers. A little hope?

Literacy efforts as PR

AceCheckCashingPageApparently ACE sees literacy efforts as good PR (other causes listed here). ACE needs it. I don’t know what the profit margins are in the check cashing business, but Claes Bell, a Chartered Financial Analyst and a columnist for Bankrate, has written that the services are bad deals for typical consumers. ACE, at the time of his 2011 article, was charging three percent per check cashed. He’s appalled, and I myself wonder why no percentage information is on the related page on the ACE Web site. And why “Cash All Your Checks at ACE”? All? What if free or lower-cost options exist elsewhere?

Just the same, Bell acknowledges people living hand to mouth may have no other choice “because they’ve run afoul of” ChexSystems “or have some other circumstance that disqualifies them for a checking account.” More than a few operators of check cashing stores would say that ACE is dealing with a high-risk, irresponsible group and deserves the three percent, even though I personally wonder about that steep a fee.

I’m not going to churn out any extended analysis here since I lack all the facts. If nothing else, however, the issues actually go far beyond morality and responsibility at the personal level. Experts such as Emmanuel Saez have documented how our tax system and economy in general are stacked against the nonrich. Tens of millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, lack money for anything but the bare necessities, and maybe not even those. Yes, the cash-strapped can try to save for emergencies. But what about six-figure medical costs even if insurance pays for most of them? Or auto accidents, divorces and other unforeseen assaults on purses and wallets? The walls between the American poor (at least covered by Medicaid and the like) and the our middle class (a long way from the Ozzie-and-Harriet nirvana) are more porous than ever.

To one extent or another, then, an unfortunate need exists for check cashing and payday loan services and others of the kind that ACE offers, despite my concerns over the sizes of charges. And as long as ACE and brethren are out there, we should encourage them to support libraries and reading in all forms.

I hardly expect most of the cell phone owners in the ACE lines to become rabid library fans and devoted readers of wisdom from financial experts, or candidates for admission to Harvard or Yale. Still, the best libraries have a knack for raising the expectations of both adults and their children. With this in mind, ACE and competitors should let the library posters go up for the benefit of customers who are open to self-improvement through e-books and in countless other ways. And if check cashing stores can train the ladies behind the glass to talk up libraries and books, especially when young parents come to the windows, then so much the better for everyone. In fact, try especially hard to get the cashiers reading off their cell phones. They’ll spread the word. Fifty ACE literacy volunteers—well, that was a nice little start. Now let’s see the industry work with librarians and others to do a lot more.

Tip: If you want an instant PIN number for H20, go to Pinzoo. Would that I have had known this earlier! H2O claimed I could not get the PIN unless I ordered directly or went to a brick-and-mortar location.

Detail: The H2O store locator on the Web is flakey. Sometimes it brings up the ACE store at 308 South Van Dorn Street, sometimes not. I guess I drew the wrong end of the straw.

Follow-up: At least off Amazon right now, you can’t buy new models of the Lightahead LA-910T cell phone, perhaps because I mentioned it in the Slashdotted post highlighting a $20 model (still sold new as of this writing). Too bad. Customers’ experiences have varied, but so far the 910T has been a good value for me. Since I’m not a heavy cell phone talker—reading is something else—it makes sense for me to use unlocked phones and pay-as-you-go plans. Your own needs may differ.

( photo at the start of this commentary. CC licensed from LibraryCity. Same for the text in the post.)


  1. What do libraries have to offer the poor? Ways to better cope with their current circumstances? Ways to change their circumstances for the better? Without very obvious, strong responses to these needs, it won’t matter if a digital device provides more convenient access as compared with fixed media library assets.

  2. @Frank: Libraries can offer both actionable content (among other kinds) and helpful humans to encourage its absorption. With online media, information can be more up to date and detailed, and hence more actionable. Also, with an online approach, even the poorest patrons can enjoy direct access to a huge amount of free content from sources such as Project Gutenberg, as well as authoritative information on issues such as health and finance and job-related matters. Good librarians can help steer the poor and other patrons to the best content, both “practical” and otherwise. Don’t you believe in the power of the right books and other content to change lives? David

  3. I feel that I understand the point of this article, but I can’t help but chuckle at the overall concept:
    “How can libraries appeal to the poor?”

    Libraries offer FREE access to books, movies, music, computers, programs (they often offer job search assistance), etc.

    Done. Libraries have been appealing to the poor for centuries.

  4. @Sarah: Yes, I was surprised to see Frank’s question, “What do libraries have to offer to the poor?”–whether it relates to paper holdings or the digital variety. The twist I’m talking up is more outreach, especially when digital keeps gaining and e-books are not very visible in the usual way. And meanwhile it won’t hurt to promote other library content and services to the people who can most benefit. Well-done posters in the right locations, ideally backed up with encouragement from people like check cashing store cashiers, can be a powerful tool.

    Notice the social element here? Librarians should be paying more attention to community organizing, not to promote ideologies but rather their content and services. Time for librarians and friends to read or reread Saul Alinsky ( I’m not saying library supporters should follow all his advice. But much of it is germane and can be adapted. Instead of demonizing human enemies, for example, librarians and friends can position themselves as poverty-fighters who offer very specific solutions and are constantly experimenting with new ones. Of course, “position” is just the start. They also need to ACT.


  5. Let me elaborate. The poor tend not to read well. (see: and the gap between them and the wealthy with respect to reading skill is widening. Consequently, the poor tend not to like reading very much. Why seek out activities that are fraught with failure and frustration? This aversion generalizes to almost all other academic activity, including spending time in libraries.
    How do we change this situation? Prevention would be best but for many there is little left but remediation. Without being able to read well enough, the charms of libraries are imperceptible, all marketing notwithstanding.

  6. @Frank: A little more optimism, please. It’s old news that poor people as a group don’t read as well as the middle class and the rich, but we can work to change this. For example:

    1. Tutoring programs and family literacy (so the kids have good role models at home and are exposed to more words). The Barbara Bush Foundation has been doing some really interesting work in this area.

    2. Use of comic books and graphic novels and other easy reading, before people move on to more advanced material.

    3. Book clubs aimed at poor people…including cell phone book clubs that would reach a news kind of reader-learner and also promote interest in tech. They could also help change the anti-learning culture among so many of the poor and make books seem more modern and cool.

    4. More efforts to improve the lot of the poor in general…including prenatal nutrition.

    No magic bullet here. But as you can see, I’m talking about some very specific solutions. Marketing is just the first step.

    Remediation? Sure. But let’s see if we can reduce the need. Yes, here’s to prevention!

    In terms of workforce quality (hardly the only consideration–let’s think about compassion and social stability, too!) the above could be most cost-effective.

    Your further thoughts?


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