New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres proposed legislation Wednesday that would require retail establishments to accept cash and forbid them from only accepting credit and debit cards. Retailers and restaurants that do not take physical currency, Torres says, box the unbanked and underbanked—populations that, disproportionately, tend to be non-white—out of the economy.
"There are hundreds and thousands of New Yorkers who may have no permanent address or home, and many New Yorkers who are underbanked, either because of poverty or because they lack documentation," Torres told Grub Street on Tuesday. "Requiring a card is erecting a barrier for low-income New Yorkers—period."
While unbanked people lack bank accounts entirely, the underbanked may maintain them, but rely primarily on other modes of financial transaction (cash, for example). According to the 2017 Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, over 14 million adults qualified as unbanked and nearly 49 million qualified as underbanked nationwide. Black and Hispanic households were far more likely than white households to operate outside the banking system, a statistic that serves a point Torres emphasized to Grub Street.
"Cashlessness seems benign," he noted, "but when you reflect on it, the insidious racism that underlies a cashless business model becomes clear. In some ways, making a card a requirement for consumption is analogous to making identification a requirement for voting. The effect is the same: It disempowers communities of color."
A number of New York restaurants have lately embraced the cashless push: Dos Toros, Dig Inn, Sweetgreen, Two Forks, Bluestone Lane coffee, many Danny Meyer establishments, the list goes on. The most common arguments in favor of cashlessness typically evoke a desire to keep apace with the times, hygiene (money is filthy), convenience, even the urge to reduce security risks (you can't rob the cash registers if there are no registers to rob).
And then there's the assumption that everyone uses cards all the time anyway, which strikes Torres as classist and a marker of oblivious privilege. And indeed, some cashless restaurants do not seem particularly eager to attract the people their payment policies leave out: As Eater reported, now-closed Commerce put a moratorium on cash in 2009. At the time, its co-owner—Tony Zazula—explained the decision thus: "If you don't have a credit card, you can use a debit card. If you don't have a debit card, you probably don't have a checking account. And if you don't have a checking account, you probably shouldn't be eating at Commerce to begin with."
In his legislation, Torres proposed a $250 penalty for a no-cash restaurant's first offense, and a $500 for each subsequent violation. He expects that the cashless chains and the business community will make a stink about the measure, but as of Tuesday, he remained hopeful that the City Council will ultimately support it.