Modern technology, coupled with a strong reliance on the internet, has created the path to a potentially cashless society. However, this futuristic utopia could quickly abandon marginalized communities if we are not delicate with the transition.
At first glance, one could assume everyone benefits from going cashless. There would be no crumpled-up dollar bills, no scrounging for quarters when you want something from the vending machine and no stress of counting exact change with a line of people behind you.
The concept of a majorly digital world is not unheard of. In the 1950s, U.S. consultants and researchers in business technology proposed the idea of a “checkless society.” As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we are now hyper-aware of the uncleanliness of currency that travels from person to person. As a consumer, there is no strong incentive to use cash.
With the onset of money-sending platforms such as Venmo and Cash App, digital transactions have become the norm for reimbursing a friend or even paying for a local service. Some establishments across the country have already made the transition to a plastic-payment-only policy.
Around the world, countries are making a similar transition. In China, for example, it has become a hassle to pay with cash when WeChat transactions have become the norm. And in Sweden, there has been a swift move toward cashlessness — much faster than in other countries.
Albeit, a cashless society comes with drawbacks nonetheless.
In America, our checks and balances might prevent a speedy transition compared to other nations with more involved governments. We must also factor in those who are internet skeptics and do not trust technology. They will surely fight any national change.
As a result of these internal conflicts, true implementation could ultimately take years. Not to mention, some local governments have already shown resistance against the notion of going completely digital, passing legislation to prevent businesses from totally abandoning cash.
States have recognized that not everyone has access to the most vital aspects of online banking: internet and a debit card.
If we are to transition to an advanced system of online banking, we must ensure that infrastructure is set in place to help those who do not have access to reliable internet and banking resources.
Specifically, we must care for our homeless population, which accounts for more than half a million people in the United States.
Excluding cash transactions could be seen as discriminatory against the homeless population because they rely on bills and change to survive. There are also many barriers that prevent them from having equal access to banking accounts.
Banks require a mailing address when you apply for an account. This is a way to ensure communication and serves as an additional privacy measure for protecting confidential documents. If they are lucky, some can manage with the address of a homeless shelter or family member’s home.
Another option is a P.O. Box, but even then, some banks reject these because they are a liability. P.O. Boxes also vary in pricing, and are sometimes expensive to reserve — making them untenable for someone with little to no income.
Some banks also require minimum deposit amounts to set up an account, as well as charge for overdraft fees. They may also impose fees of varying costs for not having a certain amount of money in your account.
Difficulties with banking don’t solely affect the homeless population. An estimated 8.4 million households were unbanked in 2017, according to a report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
To go truly cashless, banks must standardize policies that help create a more accessible experience.
In addition to consistency across banks, we must provide security for smaller businesses that rely on cash transactions.
Small family-owned businesses often sell relatively cheap items such as baked goods, and depend largely on small transactions. As a result, they often have a spending minimum for card transactions to curb the payment fees from card companies.
They rely on physical money, and must have additional support in the case that we do transition to a cashless society.
The federal government could provide a monetary incentive to cover card charges, which would provide a cushion for business owners.
For society to function with less cash, the change must be implemented across all sectors of society: vending machines, laundromats and more. It will require a collectivized effort that maintains a strong commitment toward protecting unbanked communities in America.