1. The Great Convergence: I want to tell you about a young man in his early 20s. I'll call him M. He has a high school diploma, but it's from a school system where students don't tend to learn very much in the upper grades. M has a semi-skilled job, but it's tenuous and the hours are pretty unpredictable. Public transport in his neighborhood is poor, so he borrowed some money to get a "minimum viable vehicle" in order to get the job. His connection to the formal banking system is negligible. His biggest goal is to save up some money for a better apartment--where he lives now is as safe and reliable as his vehicle, which is to say, not very. He's been saving up for that for awhile, but he keeps his savings with his grandmother. The combination of ups and downs and needs from his extended family has kept that savings from growing much, if at all. Based on that description, there is no way to tell if M is Manuel from Puebla, Melokuhle from Cape Town, Mohammed from Dhaka, Mentari from Jakarta or Michael from Baltimore. There has been tremendous progress in reducing poverty(and yes in financial inclusion) in most of the world over the last few decades. Meanwhile, in the US, there has been tremendous growth in inequality. More than that, the US economy and the labor market in particular has become much more like that in developing countries. The result is a great convergence: For the bottom 40% of the income distribution in the US, the economic reality they live in is more like that of Mexico, South Africa or Indonesia than the economic reality for the upper part of the income distribution.
2. The State of the US and the World: From a financial inclusion standpoint, there are fewer and fewer meaningful differences in the challenges faced by middle income countries and the US, at least if we care about that bottom 40% of the income distribution. Below is a chart I quickly made based on the latest Findex data, which helpfully breaks out the US lower 40%, comparing it to middle income countries.
Just taking it at face value, you can see that the differences on a variety of financial inclusion metrics aren't that big. Take a close look particularly at the "No source of emergency funds" metric. Yes, the US has more people with no source of emergency funds than middle income countries on average. The one metric that stands out is the use of formal credit, but that difference is almost certainly due to credit cards. As digital credit grows rapidly in the countries where mobile money systems are functional, expect that gap to close dramatically. The financial inclusion challenge for many middle income countries is rapidly shifting from one of expanding access to formal services broadly to issues of consumer protection for the masses, ensuring that services offered are appropriate and safe, and of reaching the last mile. Sound familiar?
3. The Corrupted Economy: But there's another part of this story that is less about financial inclusion or exclusion defined narrowly, and more about how the economy functions and what that means for growth, development, opportunity, mobility and even social cohesion. When we think about the challenges of growth and development in middle income countries the conversation is often about institutions, about access to good jobs, about quality of education, about opportunity and economic mobility for the average citizen. The general understanding is that in these countries there is one set of rules and opportunities for those who are already wealthy, those connected to power (economic and political), and everyone else. Getting a place at a university, getting a government job, getting a formal job at an international, making a powerful friend are like winning lottery tickets that can transport someone from one class to another--but they are allocated like winning lottery tickets. Getting one is a factor of luck and divine intervention. For most everyone not already part of the elite, there is little prospect of upward mobility absent a lottery ticket. Even if you follow the rules, there's little reason to believe the institutions or the powerful are going to follow the rules.