Over a five-year period, the number of bank branches declined by over 400 in Garden State.
Banks say the main reasons are customer driven, but consumer advocates say there are plenty of New Jersey residents young and old who are greatly inconvenienced by the trend.
“We want to avoid banking deserts, we want to serve everyone, not just some of the people of New Jersey,” said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.
While technological advancements may be the primary reason for banks today, Salowe-Kaye said, there has been a never-ending series of bank mergers for years, resulting in branch consolidation and layoffs. Banks are also facing rising house prices.
“There is a definite effect on low and moderate income people. They often have to turn to check cashing services, which charge high fees,” said Salowe-Kaye. “Small businesses are greatly affected by the closure of branches located near their business.”
In early October, Ocean County Commissioner Joseph Vicari wrote a letter to the head of the New Jersey banking and insurance department, urging the department to encourage banks to open and maintain local branches, especially in sprawling elderly communities. Ocean County is home to approximately 200,000 seniors.
“This is a key issue,” Vicari told New Jersey 101.5. “I want to protect seniors and their property.”
Vicari added that in-person banking reduces vulnerability to scams.
Contacted by New Jersey 101.5, Department of Banking and Insurance spokesperson Trish Graber said the department recognizes the important role banks play in the community and the need to ensure banking access to residents of the New Jersey is a priority.
“(The department) will continue to monitor requests made by state-regulated institutions and the impact the requested changes may have on New Jersey communities,” Graber said.
John McWeeney, president and CEO of the New Jersey Bankers Association, said the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated customers’ transition from using branches to using computer or smartphone banking.
A nationwide survey by the American Bankers Association in late 2020 found that more than 70% of customers choose a bank or internet app as their first choice for managing their bank account. Only 10%, compared to 17% before the pandemic, chose a bank branch.
“We are seeing the adoption of digital banking services by all age groups,” said McWeeney.
According to McWeeney, the number of bank offices in New Jersey was 2,600 in June 2021. As of June 2016, the number was just over 3,000.
“There are still 116 banking institutions doing business in New Jersey,” McWeeney said.
Banks are required to notify their regulator of the impending closure of a branch. Ideally, McWeeney said, banks would also notify customers of a branch.
Contact reporter Dino Flammia at [email protected]