How the Cashless Economy Shuts Out the Poor

(NEW YORK TIMES) December 11, 2018 — Late last month, Ritchie J. Torres, a popular city councilman from the Bronx, introduced a bill that would forbid certain businesses in New York from refusing to accept cash. During the past few years, these businesses, most of them in the same vein — fast-food restaurants with an elevated sense of themselves — have multiplied in cities around the country. Like so many ideas born of Silicon Valley philosophy, they traffic in the dueling vibes of earthiness and automation, emphasizing food that is supposed to suggest a time predating the invasions of technology — root vegetables, seeds, raw food, leafy food, local food — but then demanding that it all be paid for via the preferred methods of Apple and the international banking conglomerates.

I first encountered the imposition of cashless dining a few years ago at a branch of Sweetgreen on Wall Street, which, on the face of it, seems like a strange place to dismiss the significance of actual money. I had been reading a magazine all through the long, long line full of young hustlers, all of us eager to get to the curried cauliflower and uncooked corn. Thus, I did not realize until my salad full of cholesterol’s fiercest enemies had already been assembled that the cashier was totally uninterested in the $20 bill in my pocket. Without a credit card or a debit card in my possession, I would be forced, apparently, into a lunch elsewhere that could be measured only by its toxicity.

There are various arguments to be made against cashless businesses — the inconvenience falling to people too scattered to leave the house with a wallet being merely one of them. The strongest objection relates to the ways in which rejecting physical currency plays out as a bias toward the poor, advancing segregation in retail environments.

According to government data, close to 7 percent of American households have no one in them with a checking or savings account, while an additional 19 percent are considered “underbanked,” meaning that they rely on products or services outside the conventional financial system. These include money orders and payday and pawnshop loans. The majority of people who fall into these categories are nonwhite.