The Progressive Case for Cashless Stores
Everyone should be concerned about unbanked populations losing access to an increasingly cashless economy
Last year on November 26, Elgin Brack and his uncle Scott sat in an idling car outside of a Duane Reade in the New York borough of Queens. Around 3:30 a.m., Elgin got out of the car and allegedly entered the store with a gun, where instead of robbing the store of its cash, he reportedly got in an argument with the cashier and shot him in the head. Elgin and his uncle allegedly went on to rob four more stores at gunpoint.
Two days later, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres introduced legislation requiring all stores and restaurants in the city to accept cash.
Councilman Torres’ bill—one of several similar efforts in states and cities—is trying to solve a real problem. Cashless stores and restaurants like Sweetgreen and Dos Toros are becoming increasingly common, but they theoretically discriminate against people who don’t have access to cashless payment methods like debit and credit cards, a group that is poor and disproportionately black and Hispanic. Most debit and credit cards require consumers to have a bank account, and with 14 million unbanked adults in the U.S.—people who lack a checking or savings account—that isn’t a reality for everyone. By requiring all stores and restaurants in New York City to accept cash, Torres hopes to ensure the unbanked won’t be effectively banned from these stores.
Unfortunately this new policy unnecessarily exposes front line retail and restaurant workers—a group that is also disproportionately poor and people of color—to the risks of carrying cash, burdens the businesses that employ the people Torres hopes to help by forcing them to take on the operational costs of cash, and fails to address the larger problem of unbanked people being unable to access the online economy.
Instead of trying to resist the transition away from using cash, we should be focused on making sure that unbanked people have cheap or free access to cashless payment methods to ensure that everyone can participate in the full economy—both physical and digital.