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Why America won’t be going cashless anytime soon



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There’s a reason they say cash is king. 

Commodity money—physical objects like coins and paper bills that hold value—has been used since ancient societies made the switch from bartering goods like salt and cattle. America started issuing its own currency, which evolved into the dollar we know today, in 1776, just before the country declared its independence.

Cash is still the second-most-used form of payment in America today after debit cards. But many advocates for “going cashless” believe that the paper dollar’s time is nearly up.

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages communities around the globe, the use of cash is raising concerns around cleanliness and viral transmission, even though the cotton that paper money is made of has been proved to carry virus particles for around the same time or less than plastic credit and debit cards do. And as digitization tightens its grip on the world, new technologies are popping up left and right to make paying for goods and services easier and more frictionless. 

Cash is still the second-most-used form of payment in America today after debit cards, but many advocates for “going cashless” believe that the dollar’s time is nearly up.

While its use has certainly declined in recent years, cash will likely never disappear as those in the cashless movement would hope. Many cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York have recently passed legislation banning merchants from accepting only card and contactless payments. New Jersey passed a similar bill in 2019 on the state level, and cashless merchants have been banned in Massachusetts since 1978

There are many reasons experts list in arguing that cash must remain a viable payment option: Going cashless excludes the millions of unbanked and underbanked people in America, most of whom are people of color; cash is the best way to pay while maintaining a modicum of privacy; cash is integral to many cultural practices like tipping and gift giving; cash is resilient in a way that digital payments are not; and finally, consumer choice is one of the most important tenets of the free market, and eliminating cash removes one of the key payment options available to consumers. 

“The cashless movement is a dangerous movement,” assistant director of the National Consumer Law Center Lauren Saunders says. 

Going cashless disadvantages the unbanked and communities of color

Approximately 6.5% of U.S. households—14.1 million adults and 6.4 million children—are unbanked, according to the FDIC’s 2017 National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, meaning they live in a household holding no accounts with formal, insured financial institutions. Another 18.7% of households are underbanked, which means they have at least one account at an insured institution, but they also use financial products or services outside of the banking system, like payday loans or cash-checking services.

“Any move to cashlessness is, by definition, exclusionary to those groups,” Christina Tetreault, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports, says.

If you have a bank account, it’s easy to get checks cashed and transfer money for free. But the unbanked typically have to use check-cashing services or money orders to get cash and transfer money, methods that cost quite a bit in fees.

“It’s expensive to be poor, and it’s very expensive to be unbanked,” says Martin Chorzempa, research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 

Banking in the United States has unnecessarily high barriers to entry, says Chorzempa. That leaves lower-income people—often people of color, particularly black people—from participating in the formal economy. America’s long and racist history of excluding nonwhite people in all corners of society rears its ugly head here too. 

Simply put, the American banking system was not built for people without disposable income. So, when low- and middle-income people use these systems, they are often hurt more than helped. For instance, most major banks require checking and savings accounts to carry a minimum balance to avoid incurring fees. These and overdraft fees are simply “fees for not having money,” Tetreault says. 

Other fees that disadvantage poorer people include but certainly aren’t limited to ATM withdrawal fees, wire transfer charges, and debit card swipe fees. Those add up.

“Most overdraft fees are repaid within three days, and the median fee in 2014 was $34,” reads an article by the Berkeley Economic Review staff. “However, the annual percentage rates for payday loans are between 300% and 600%; if overdraft fees were treated as a payday loan that is repaid within three days, the APR would be 1,700%.”

Another way lower-income people and people of color are disadvantaged in the formal economy is the physical placement of banks, which are often few and far between or entirely absent in communities of color, Deyanira Del Río, codirector of the New Economy project, said in her January testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services Task Force on Financial Technology. 

Absence of Bank Branches in Communities of Color
New York City, 2018
Courtesy of New Economy Project; Source: Sources: FDIC Summary of Deposits (6/2018); American Community Survey (2015):

For instance, in New York City neighborhoods of color, there is one bank on average per 10,000 residents, according to a New Economy map made by compiling data from the FDIC and the 2015 American Community Survey. In majority-white neighborhoods, there are 3.5 banks per 10,000 residents. 

Mounting fees along with the banking deserts and irritations like ATMs dispensing only $20 bills when people may want or need to withdraw smaller amounts add up to a crippling financial situation for many, Tetreault says. That forces people to abandon their bank accounts and the formal economy in favor of the cheaper and easier-to-predict fees associated with informal services like payday loans and check-cashing. She says that most unbanked people used to have bank accounts, but chose to forgo them for these reasons.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, explains that “digital redlining”—named after the redlining in the housing market that denied mortgages in neighborhoods of color—has worked against communities of colors for decades now. Digital redlining refers to a number of practices that profile customers of color (again, particularly black people) and excludes them from and disadvantages them in financial systems. 

And while wealthier people’s money works for them—accruing interest in bank accounts, earning dividends in the stock market, and racking up rewards points with credit cards—the unbanked essentially lose money as inflation increases while their stockpile stays stagnant. This negative return rate ends up digging a deeper hole, leaving the unbanked with even less money, further from being able to participate in the formal, digitized economy if they want to. 

“The reasons that people are shut out of bank accounts that would allow them to transact electronically are largely structural,” Tetreault says.

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, a professor at Northumbria University and an expert in financial technology and business history, says for the cashless movement to succeed and not disproportionately disadvantage the unbanked and underbanked, the systems that work overtime to exclude those people must be rethought. 

Del Río speaks of this in her testimony: “Too often, discussions about financial access disparities focus on the choices and behaviors of individuals, or on the need to design ‘alternative products,’ rather than on structural barriers that block poor people, immigrants, and people of color from mainstream financial institutions and freedom.”

Chorzempa says that if cash were to disappear, individuals without the access or means to pay for things with the newest financial technology effectively become second-class citizens.

“I think there’s going to be a big social justice question that would block the complete adoption of [cashlessness],”  says David L. Stearns, an expert in the history of payment systems and author of Electronic Value Exchange: Origins of the VISA Electronic Payment System

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, the prime sponsor of the ban on cashless merchants that the city passed in late January, says businesses going cashless is “discrimination not in intent, but in effect.” However, he adds, in knowing who tends to pay with cash and who could go cashless, business owners could control who shops at their stores, making the discrimination more overt. 

A cashless society would surrender privacy

In the digital modern world, people lose more and more of their privacy every day—if there is any of it left at this point at all. Cash is the most anonymous form of payment that exists right now, preserving privacy in a way that even cryptocurrency doesn’t.

There are plenty of reasons, not all of them nefarious, to want anonymity in transactions, Stearns says. From under-the-table, taxless payments to buying a gift for a spouse with a joint bank account, privacy is a concern in the financial world.

There is an entire data-brokering industry that wants the data that comes from consumers’ financial records, Stanley says. And Congress, he believes, is allowing weak privacy laws to go unchecked and unchanged, placing few to no limits on what data banks and financial services companies can share and with whom.

In a blog post for the ACLU, Stanley detailed how companies can gain access to a wealth of knowledge from very little information. When given a credit card for payment, a seller can, at the very least, learn the consumer’s full name. That, with the customer’s zip code, either asked for or guessed (most transactions take place in a credit card’s registered zip code), can lead to a shocking amount of information. Using “data appending” services, the name and zip code can get that seller the consumer’s mailing address, email, and phone number. And with that knowledge, sellers can get into the giant databases and learn even more. 

Under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, companies can sell customer financial data to just about anyone they choose. Consumers, then, have no privacy under federal regulations unless they take steps to opt out of that data-sharing with every company that might have their information. 

Cash is one of the last strongholds left to maintain anonymity and keep purchasing information truly private without handing heaps of data to the corporations that make a buck off your receipts—or worse, to hackers, in the case of a data breach.

Despite cryptocurrency’s claim that it keeps users’ information private, there are plenty of ways to track the likes of Bitcoin back to their last owners

Cash is ingrained in our cultures 

What would you do if you couldn’t slide the kind woman that brings all your bags to your hotel room a five? If you couldn’t gift the kids in your life crisp new bills in a red envelope on Lunar New Year

There are a lot of cultural customs we forget about when we discuss the merits of nixing cash. From tipping to gift giving to collecting, cash is deeply ingrained in our practices, Stearns says. 

In the U.S., people use cash to tip people who perform services for which there isn’t a mandatory transaction, like an airport shuttle bus driver. Americans also teach their children about money and budgeting with cash, using it to pay weekly allowances and reward children who are too young for bank accounts for chores and the like. And don’t forget about the tooth fairy!

In Southern Indian culture, people throw kuri kalyanam parties, to which guests are expected to bring a cash donation for whatever big cost the host is raising funds for. When that host gets invited to someone else’s kuri kalyanam feast, they are expected to donate twice what they received at their party. 

And at weddings in many cultures, including Greek, Mexican, and Polish, guests pin bills onto the happy couple’s clothing as they dance. 

Having a physical object of value like cash is key to these practices, Stearns says. If cash dies, so too could these traditions. 

Cash will be there when technology fails

In a doomsday scenario where we have no access to the Internet, how would we access our money? This may seem far-fetched, but it’s an important question to ask when creating laws and infrastructures. When technology fails, cash is there.

“We need to have cash because we need to have backup systems,” Batiz-Lazo says. 

The economy as it is in America today was built for cash, he says, and it needs to be rethought for the way consumers use their money now. But cash is still important to keep around, he says, if only as an anchor for when technology doesn’t work according to plan. 

Stanley writes that electronic payments systems are far less resilient than cash and leave consumers open to centralized points of failure. “If a hacker, bureaucratic error, or natural disaster shuts a consumer out of their account, the lack of a cash option would leave them few alternatives,” he writes for the ACLU.

Consumer choice is key

“Consumer payment choice is critical,” Tetreault says. 

One of the key reasons that experts don’t see a cashless future is that the pros don’t outweigh the freedom that would be taken away. 

“Minimizing is one thing,” Saunders says of cash use. “Eliminating it is something else.” 

She also points to groups like the Consumer Choice Payment Coalition, a mix of consumer representatives and businesses committed to fighting for consumers’ right to choose cash. 

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s 2019 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice makes clear that consumers value cash as an option, even if it’s mainly considered a backup to digital forms of payment. The diary also shows that cash is the preferred payment type for small transactions, used in nearly half of all transactions under $10, and 42% of those under $25. 

While cash use is declining little by little each year, it remains an important option in the financial lives of Americans. 

Is going cashless even legal?

A section of U.S. Code on the American monetary system states that “United States coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.” That sure makes it sound like cash must be accepted everywhere, doesn’t it? Not so. 

All U.S.-minted money is a valid form of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor, but there is no federal statute mandating that private businesses, individuals, or organizations have to accept cash as payment for goods and services. 

Because federal and state governments can regulate government services, and there is no federal law mandating cash acceptance, it falls to city lawmakers to ban cashlessness. Local governments have to act to fill the voids and protect their unbanked and minority constituents that are disproportionately affected by cashless merchants. 

“I have no choice but to legislate at the margins,” Torres, the prime sponsor of the bill banning cashlessness in New York City, says.

The New York bill was introduced in November 2018 and had plenty of pushback from already-cashless merchants, technology companies, and credit card companies, primarily Mastercard. Many in the tech industry, he says, feel that clinging to cash is a Band-Aid for real systemic problems and that it is an anti-tech move.

Torres says banning cashless merchants does nothing to prevent technology from being used or advanced—it just allows for more choice. And while he says he believes that there should be legislation to address the many issues causing people to go unbanked, this is what has to be done to protect that population for now. 

“Then people would be less resistant,” he predicted. But until then, he says, we can’t force fintech on the unbanked and underbanked or those worried for their privacy.

Don’t expect America to go cashless anytime soon, if at all

Despite what some of the loudest voices in tech want you to think, cash probably isn’t going anywhere. 

Some experts, like Batiz-Lazo, believe the pandemic will be a strong force for change in the payments landscape, but not one that eliminates cash. He believes that change will likely be a push for stronger legislation protecting consumer financial data and reassessing the role of—and maybe even breaking up—big fintech companies like Mastercard and Visa

“If we just have some enlightened people that remember they have to take care of vulnerable consumers,” Batiz-Lazo says, the American financial system will get better for all involved. 

The cashless movement, which money historian Stearns says started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, still hasn’t managed to go mainstream after all these years. 

“The decline of cash is overstated,” Tetreault says. “There’s been a talk of the death of cash for many years, and it is true that many people make more electronic payments now, but I think cash is still king.”

The way the American economy functions these days is what some experts call “cash lite,” meaning that there are a lot of payment options for consumers to choose from, and most prefer the digital ones. But cash is still an important option to maintain. 

Even as new and exciting financial technologies become available, people keep returning to cash. Despite fears at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that cash might increase the risk of contracting the virus, people are using paper money at the same rate as they were in the fall of 2019.

“In the way we pay for things, we’re super stubborn,” Stearns says. 

So though some say cashless is the future, the experts don’t see that future arriving anytime soon. 

As Stanley says, “Sometimes the oldest, simplest things have their place and continue for a reason.”

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