The problems of poverty - a growing concern in New Jersey - can sometimes seem insurmountable.
But a recent Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. report offers one idea that could help: Make banking services more readily available to low-income people.
One fourth of all New Jersey residents regularly take care of their financial business outside the mainstream banking system. In FDIC speak, they are the "unbanked" - the nearly 7 percent of the state's households who had no bank account at all - and the "underbanked" - another 19 percent who had either a checking or savings account but still regularly used non-bank services.
These services include check-cashing, tax-refund anticipation loans, money orders and payday loans, as well as rent-to-own stores and pawn shops.
Non-bank services are more expensive than mainstream banks. As a result, the people who can least afford it - primarily the poor, the unemployed and low-income seniors - are nickel-and-dimed by higher fees and interest rates. Operating outside the banking system also makes it impossible for young people to establish a credit history.
Nationally, 8 percent of households have neither a checking nor savings account, and the percentage is much higher for black households (21 percent) and Hispanic households (20 percent).
The FDIC thinks turning this around just makes good business sense. It is trying to spread the word that these underserved households could be good customers, and their significant numbers could help financial institutions grow.
The report recommends that banks work harder to demonstrate the advantages of savings and checking accounts, offer more convenient locations and offer quicker access to deposited funds and more affordable small loans.
The good news is that New Jersey may be ahead of the curve on this.
The state has a financial literacy program that it can build on. Financial education can help students, seniors and others to make smarter decisions with their money. They can learn the importance of shopping for financial services and that state-chartered banks are required to offer low-cost checking accounts.
And legislation passed last year created new banking development districts in the state, designed to use state and municipal deposits to encourage banks to open branches in underserved urban and rural areas.
Bringing banking services to those neighborhoods is the right thing to do. By opening access to a new customer base, it may also be a good way for banks to grow their own bottom line.