Follow-up: Direct Express Card unreliable solution for “unbanked” neighbors

By Sujata Dand, Senior Editor and Reporter
Dallas, Texas | health care, education, public policy

December 20, 2023

South Dallas

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A few months ago, we told you the story of Ideal neighborhood resident Benny Cooper, a veteran who has been unable to access his Social Security Administration payments for months because his Direct Express debit-card was blocked. 

We received several inquiries from readers asking how Cooper is doing now.

Since we first reported the story in September, Cooper has received three social security checks in the mail — for September and October. At the time of our last meeting in October, Cooper was told by the social security office that his final check of about $2,600 in payments for April through August had been issued and was in the mail.

Veteran Benny Cooper waits in the lobby of the South Dallas social security office on Malcolm X Boulevard for help to access his Social Security Administration payments. Photo by Sujata Dand

Sherri Mixon, executive director of TR Hoover Community Development Center, has been helping Cooper. After our story was published, Mixon and Dallas Free Press contacted U.S. Representative Jasmine Crockett’s office on Cooper’s behalf. Crockett’s representatives told us they could not speak on the record about Cooper’s particular situation without Cooper’s written permission, but we later learned that the social security office closed Cooper’s Direct Express account. We assume Crockett’s office helped make that possible. Cooper’s future payments will be delivered by check through the mail. 

Crockett’s staff has dedicated members who work with residents in her district to help navigate the social security system. You can find help here or contact her office directly at 202.225.8885.

While Cooper’s issues may be resolved, Mixon is still concerned about the number of people who continue to lose access to their social security payments because their Direct Express card is blocked. 

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Sherri Mixon accompanies veteran Benny Cooper at the South Dallas Social Security Office on Malcolm X Boulevard. Photo by Sujata Dand

Mixon says when she last visited the South Dallas social security office on Malcolm X Boulevard with Cooper, she learned that people were coming in daily, complaining about their Direct Express debit cards being blocked. 

“They see people bouncing back and forth between the social security office and calling Direct Express,” Mixon says. “This isn’t just happening to Mr. Cooper. This is happening to a lot of people in South Dallas.”

Mixon says the process is flawed. When residents visit the social security office for help when their card is blocked, there is little that the social security employees can do. 

Over the last year, the process changed. The social security office can not contact Direct Express directly if there’s a problem with a beneficiary’s card. If the card is lost or, in Cooper’s case, if the card is blocked for security reasons, the social security office can only alert Direct Express and ask them to give Cooper a phone call. 

Mixon says that’s a problem.

The Direct Express® program is run on behalf of the U.S. Treasury’s Fiscal Service by Comerica Bank, which serves as the Treasury’s Financial Agent. The Direct Express® Debit Mastercard® Card issued by Comerica Bank operates the Direct Express® program with support from its contractors. When Cooper’s debit card stopped working, he could not find help at Comerica Bank, either.

When we asked Crockett’s office to talk about this issue, we were told they were looking into the matter. However, in Crockett’s quarterly update, a public affairs specialist from the social security office talked about “all things social security,” including cost of living adjustments and fraud concerns. 

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She ended her talk by advertising Direct Express as an option for people who don’t have a bank account.

“What if you don’t have a bank account?” the public affairs specialist asks. “Social security has partnered with Comerica bank and offers a prepaid debit card called Direct Express. 

“With Direct Express, you can access your benefit payment without a bank. Social security electronically deposits your funds directly into the prepaid debit card account and those funds are available on your payment date. Direct Express has no enrollment fee or a minimum balance fee to open up the account.”

There was no mention of what to do if you have problems accessing your funds through Direct Express. 

Direct Express debit cards are used by the federal government for people who don’t use banks. Photo Kazai Drew

Because this solution for the ‘unbanked,’ isn’t working for Cooper, Mixon is encouraging him to open a bank account. 

“If you don’t go directly to a bank with this next check, you won’t be receiving another check,” Mixon warns Cooper. She says his options are to open up a checking account to receive direct deposits — money moved electronically from social security into a bank account, which is more reliable and has a much quicker turnaround time than a mailed check. This is the problem the Direct Express debit card is supposed to solve, but Mixon says it would be better for Cooper to obtain a different debit card, such as a Chime card, for which customer service may be more reliable.

If residents need help navigating the social security system, you can receive help here from Crocket’s staff or you can contact her office directly at 202.225.8885.

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