In 1977, Congress wanted to make sure commercial banks fulfilled their commitment to serve all communities in America, regardless of income level. “A public charter conveys numerous economic benefits,” said William Proxmire, then head of the Senate Banking Committee, “and in return it is legitimate for public policy and regulatory practice to require some public purpose.”

Under the Community Reinvestment Act, banks are periodically examined for how well they provide lending and investment to low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods where they take deposits. Since its enactment, 97 percent of all banks examined have received a “Satisfactory” or “Outstanding” grade, according to the Congressional Research Service.

And yet lending and even basic financial services remain hard to come by for the poor. In the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s most recent survey, over one in four American households have either little or no access to traditional banking. Fully 93 percent of all bank branch closures from 2008-2013 happened in low-income neighborhoods, which has dramatic effects on the availability of small business loans. Poor people without access to credit turn to predatory payday lenders that trap them in a cycle of debt.

What’s the disconnect here? How can practically every bank get a satisfactory rating for lending to LMI communities for almost 40 years, yet serious problems with lending to the poor persist?

The problem is that regulators implementing the Community Reinvestment Act have not kept pace with innovations the banking industry uses to get out of its commitments. “Regulators have not been scrutinizing the purported CRA-eligible activities to the extent we need,” said Kevin Stein of the California Reinvestment Coalition. In fact, some of those activities, far from helping low-income residents get a leg up, are actively harmful, but banks aren’t downgraded for such pursuits.

The CRA includes several perfect conditions for banks to game the system. No one agency oversees the law: The FDIC, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency all separately conduct examinations on different banks. These regulators do not mandate lending quotas. They subjectively assess a range of activities banks engage in, from maintaining bank branches to investing in capital projects in LMI neighborhoods to holding financial literacy sessions to offering remittance services.