On the 1 st of September 2003, a new law on basic bank services* came into force in Belgium -unprecedented in Europe. This law obliges all banking institutions to offer a basic bank service for a maximum annual fee of 12 Euros, and thus aims to effectively eradicate bank exclusion, and more broadly socio-economic exclusion. But to what extent does the introduction of a legal 'right to a bank account' actually succeed in democratising access and usage of a bank account, and fight financial exclusion and poverty? How can we explain the establishment of this law, and interpret its meaning within the area of tension between on the one hand, increasing liberalization (deregulation) and sharp competition in the banking sector, and on the other, the need for quality and affordable basic service provision for all? Which additional policy measures -identified and tested via carefully designed experiments- are most urgent to effectively realize the potential impacts of the law on basic bank services? Which concrete suggestions does this unique case generate for efforts elsewhere (in particular, the EU and the US) to provide the poor with financial services? And more generally, what are the implications of our research-strategy and -results for the further design and implementation of well thought-out social policy in Belgium as well as abroad?To effectively evaluate the broader impacts of a basic bank service, and more generally, the usage of financial products, special efforts are needed in developing innovative data. Existing databases (namely, the Socio-Economic Panel and the Panel Study of Belgian Households) are inadequate to enhance our understanding of, amongst other things, how individuals conceptualise their decisions over new financial products, to what extent individuals actually make use of existing services, and whether the use of these services really impacts individual and household welfare. Moreover, the poor or low-income households, the central target group of our project, are often underrepresented (due to attrition and selection biases) in those typical databases (De Keulenaar, 2002; Adriaansen, 2003). Hence, the approach we wish to promote and explore combines randomised experiments with survey data of random samples.
Our project strives not only to improve our understanding of social situations related to poverty, but also to help shape better policies to fight against poverty. For instance, the unravelling of how certain population segments in our society analyse and undertake every day consumption decisions should allow policymakers and professionals to more effectively reach and assist these groups. Also, feedback from a randomised encouragement experiment should allow development planners, among other things, to perfect the product (basic bank service) and to develop a targeted, effective marketing or promotion strategy for launching it to a wider audience.