Maurice Smith

A not-so-wonderful life

Imagine a world without credit unions.

November 28, 2018

One of my favorite holiday movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 classic featuring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Tomas Mitchell.

The story features a timeless lesson about the human spirit and the difference we make in others’ lives.

Stewart plays the role of George Bailey, a small-town community banker. George is discouraged with his life and longs for the excitement of traveling to faraway places. He believes his life in Bedford Falls has little impact.

One reason I like this movie is its resemblance to the challenges and opportunities credit unions confront every day. For all practical purposes, the bank in the movie could have easily been scripted as a credit union.

As member-owned cooperatives, we recognize the hard work of serving our communities. We identify with the heartfelt needs of consumers. We know how challenging it can be to help members with life’s hardships.

When George was at his lowest point, he received a visit from an angel named Clarence, who shows George what his town would have looked like if not for his many good deeds over the years.

George gets a glimpse of the lives his friends, neighbors, and family would have endured without his contributions.

After watching this movie for the nth time, I wondered what life would be like without credit unions. I don’t need a Clarence to show me. I can imagine such a world for myself.

In a world without credit unions, consumers’ lives would be very different. Many wouldn’t have affordable alternatives for financial services. We would be left to fend for ourselves in a marketplace of institutions who only seek profits for a few shareholders.

Without credit unions, predatory practices would run rampant in our communities because bad actors would not fear the competitive pressures from our cooperatives. Consumers would face exorbitant prices and unfair practices.

The ability to grow family wealth, improve our communities, and build our lives would be greatly hindered.

In a world where credit unions never existed, many consumers would be largely uninformed on how to make prudent financial choices. They would lack access to the emphasis credit unions place on financial literacy.

Here, the conflict that exists between institutions and customers would lead to inequality disfavoring the consumers. In this world, people of modest means have fewer options for affordable financial services.

It would be almost impossible for someone with a low credit score, scant savings, and working-class wages to claw their way up the economic ladder.

Without credit unions coming to the rescue, consumers wouldn’t know how good life could be. They would be captive to a system of financial services that lacks sensitivity to their needs and access to prudent products.

In a world lacking credit unions, ordinary consumers wouldn’t know the privilege of participating in the corporate governance of their own financial cooperative. They would be oblivious to the notion of volunteer boards, equal voting power, and an egalitarian treatment among credit union members.

Consumers would have little voice in how services are designed and delivered.

In the movie, George realizes how much he’s impacted the lives of others. He comes to appreciate the value of helping neighbors with conscientious financial services. George learns what we have always known in the credit union movement.

Your CUNA and league partners fight every day to enable credit unions to make a difference in the lives of our members. If not for you and the work you do for all communities, life would be different for millions of people.

Therefore, we advocate for the principles and powers of credit unions. In the movie, it’s said that when a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

I say, when a credit union helps a member, we all are lifted.

MAURICE SMITH is CUNA chairman and president/CEO of Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C. Contact him at 919-755-0534.