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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Add one more thing to the list of rural America's ails: diminished access to banks.

Driving the news: The shuttering of branches across the U.S. had a disproportionate negative effect in certain areas, according to new research from the Federal Reserve.

  • Underbanked rural communities were left with even fewer banks in the span of five years.
  • Urban communities didn't see the same substantial declines.

Why it matters: Lack of banking services could help propel the issues plaguing rural America — including population declines (as more people move to urban areas) and economic malaise — and exacerbate the rural-urban divide.

  • Access to banking services is crucial to "build a cushion of wealth that can provide stability and support economic opportunity and mobility over the long term," per the Fed.

The latest: The Fed identified 44 counties that had 10 or fewer branches in 2012 and then lost at least half of those banks by 2017. 89% of those counties are rural, including places like Cochran County in Texas and Missaukee County in Michigan.

  • Rural counties hit the hardest by branch closures had older, poorer and less educated populations than other rural counties, Fed researchers note — groups that tend to rely on nearby banking services the most.

Of note: While in-person banking has become less relevant with the rise of online and mobile banking, that's not the case for everyone.

What they're saying: Community members told the Fed in a series of "listening sessions" that digital banking wasn't as accessible for older bank customers, the report notes.

  • Others said internet and cell service are "not sufficient, reliable, or affordable enough in their communities to allow for a substitution to online banking."
  • Some participants told the Fed that the expertise of local bankers who, for example, "understand homeownership in rural communities" is irreplaceable.
  • Lacking adequate substitutes, residents turn to non-bank alternatives — payday lenders, private ATMs (that can have high fees) or prepaid cards — and drive long distances to access certain financial services, or go without them altogether.

Between the lines: The challenges for bank business in rural communities are precisely ones that banks can help solve.

  • In a survey of community banks by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, some bankers "described being trapped in shrinking rural markets that are saturated and economically stagnant," which they cite as a risk to attracting and retaining core deposits.

The bottom line: "The loss of banks creates direct costs in terms of residents’ access to financial services, but there are also large indirect costs,” Richmond Fed president Thomas Barkin tells Axios in a statement.

  • "They invest in their communities, educate others about finances, create incentives for other businesses and signal a community’s vibrancy," Barkin says.
  • The Richmond Fed, which counts Maryland through South Carolina plus most of West Virginia as part of its district, hosted its first event focused on rural America earlier this year.

Go deeper:

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