Disdain for poor people is often packaged as an innocent design choice. There is, for instance, an entire genre of architecture dedicated to subtly preventing people from sleeping or lying down. But cashless businesses, which retailers claim improve store operations, and which seem to keep popping up in the bougiest corners of the cities that have not banned them, are an especially offensive and insidious way to keep lower-wage people out of coffee shops and salad spots.
Cash bans turn regular retailers into semi-private spaces, as some consumers, such as those who are “unbanked” (without a bank account) and “underbanked” (those who have a bank account but rely on alternative, often predatory financial products like check cashing) cannot afford the cost of admission. An estimated 25 percent of U.S. households are unbanked or underbanked.
“Moving to a cashless society essentially prevents lower-wage workers and those without credit from accessing certain products and services,” said Alexandrea Ravenelle, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, whose work focuses on the sharing economy. “It creates a two-tiered society of those who can spend freely and those who are essentially discriminated against on the basis of credit access.”
People use cash as a way to budget, and avoid fees for overdrafts or low balances, Ravenelle added. “If they do have access to prepaid debit cards, those cards often come with numerous fees. Research also shows that people tend to spend more when they're using credit cards—which is especially problematic if someone has a tight budget or limited funds. It's very easy to go over budget when using plastic,” she said. Just look at all the people who refer to Venmo as “not real money.”
Cashlessness is not a new phenomenon. Visa, in an early-2000’s campaign for their Visa Check Card, attempted to smear it as a cumbersome payment instrument. Ads show busy theater-goers and convenience store customers moving and swiping their cards in fast-paced synchrony until one customer produces cash from his wallet, bringing the symphony to a screeching halt. Visa went even further in 2017, offering $10,000 to businesses willing to go cashless, according to a Bloomberg report.
Massachusetts was the first state to ban cashless retail businesses back in 1978. But there have only been six reports of violations, and the law has never resulted in any enforcement actions, according to Boston Magazine.
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A new surge of legislation aims to counter the cashless business trend. Philadelphia was the first city in the U.S. in this recent wave to propose a ban, though last June, the city delayed the ban until October. In March, New Jersey passed a law banning cashless policies. In May, San Francisco officially banned cashless stores. Chicago attempted to ban cashless spots in 2017, but the bill was struck down.
There are currently two bills, both proposed in May 2019, to ban cash bans on a federal level. Neither has yet passed. One bill, called the CASH (Cash Always Should be Honored) Act, aims to “...make it unlawful for any physical retail establishment to refuse to accept cash as payment, and for other purposes. Another bill, the Payment Choice Act, seeks to “prohibit retail businesses from refusing cash payments, and for other purposes.”
In a sign of the changing tide (and in order to comply with state laws) Sweetgreen, the salad company, reversed a two-year cash ban last April, announcing it will re-accept cash in all its locations by the end of 2019. In a moment of almost unbearable naivety, the company noted that the decision to go cashless somehow “had the unintended consequence of excluding those who prefer to pay or can only pay with cash.”
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