Backlash against cashless stores as more U.S. jurisdictions require businesses to accept bills

Cashless society is "a long ways away" as San Francisco becomes the latest U.S. jurisdiction to ban cashless stores, which some say are a form of discrimination.

Denying consumers the choice to use cash is a form of discrimination, some say

As the options for mobile, card and online payments increase, San Francisco is the latest U.S. jurisdiction to require every brick-and-mortar store to accept cash, to accommodate those who may have no other way to pay. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In the heart of downtown San Francisco, Organic Coup is a fast-food joint that's right on trend: It's all organic, and it's all cashless.

That suits customers like Robert Goldenberg.

"The fact of the matter is, I don't think I've carried a significant amount of cash in the last five years," Goldenberg said, organic chicken salad in hand.

So Goldenberg was shocked to hear that his city — the heartbeat of the Silicon Valley area — is now requiring every brick-and-mortar business to accept cash.

"Requiring a store to take cash just seems ... useless, especially here," Goldenberg said.

This week, San Francisco became the latest U.S. jurisdiction to ban cashless commerce, joining the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts. New York City may soon follow suit.

In San Francisco, cashless stores — most of them counter-serve chains like Sweetgreen and Tender Greens, or tech-friendly retailers like Amazon Go grocery stores — will have 90 days to comply with the new law passed on Tuesday by the city's Board of Supervisors.

Stores like this Amazon Go in downtown San Francisco will have 90 days to comply with the new law. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

'An equity issue'

Supervisor Vallie Brown, the driving force behind the cashless store ban, said she was responding to complaints from some of her African-American constituents who said they were being marginalized.

"For them not to be able to go and give cash, I thought was really discrimination and an equity issue," Brown said. 

The problem isn't limited to San Francisco.

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), 8.5 million Americans are "unbanked" — the term used for people who don't have bank accounts — many of them minorities and seniors.

San Francisco supervisor Vallie Brown, the driving force behind the city’s cashless store ban, says she was responding to complaints from some of her African-American constituents who said they were being marginalized. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

A ban on using cash leaves them behind, says one expert.

"We're already experiencing high record levels of wealth gaps in our nation, in the world, and I think something like a cashless system would contribute to it," said Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, assistant director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

1/4 use only cash

She was the lead author of The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles, the first report examining wealth inequity by race and ethnicity in the Los Angeles area.

"A lot of the research that we've been doing at our centre has showed that those that are unbanked are ones that are recent immigrants to the U.S., usually from countries where they haven't been able to trust institutions and financial systems," De La Cruz-Viesca said.

"A lot of times they feel more comfortable using cash as a form of payment for everything from medical bills to rent."

Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, assistant director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, says many of the unbanked in America are immigrants. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Around a quarter of those in the U.S. still make all of their purchases using cash, according to the Global Cash Index report issued by PYMNTS, a platform for information about the payments industry. 

"We're a long ways away from a cashless society," says Ken Singleton, a professor at the Stanford School of Business who has studied how banking practices affect people with low incomes.

Singleton says cashless stores don't just exclude the unbanked, they also affect the more than 24 million households that are "underbanked," which the FDIC defines as people who have a bank account while also using services such as payday loans or pawn shop loans at least once a year.

"They may not trust themselves using credit, they may not have applied for credit cards. They may be fearful over drafting their accounts: the overdraft fees are enormous among lower-income families across the country," Singleton said. "And often their payments come to them in cash for the work they do."

'A cash society'

Singleton says Americans may be even more disposed to paying in cash than citizens of other nations.

"The U.S. is comfortably behind in the rest of the world in many ways in this regard," Singleton says. "I think we remain very much a cash society."

In contrast, Canada was declared the top country in the world embracing cashless technology, according to an analysis by one Forex site.

The Bank of Canada said in a report last fall that the unbanked population in Canada "is very small," so Canadians would be less affected by being forced to go cashless.

"The disappearance of cash would not appear to present material problems in terms of access to payment means, given the near-universal availability of electronic services and bank accounts," the BoC said.

A survey by mobile payments company Square found 79 per cent of Canadian respondents are "card-first" buyers, and 41 per cent describe themselves as "card-only" buyers.

If anyone should love cashless sales, it's Anthony Frias, of San Francisco, who works for Square.

He rarely pays cash, and on a recent coffee break he didn't even need plastic to get his espresso at Blue Bottle Coffee, which is experimenting with cash-free sales.

Anthony Frias sees both sides, as an employee of a mobile payments company and as the son of immigrants who depended on cash. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Today I actually just set up the virtual [payment] cards on my phone, [which means] not even having to grab my wallet," Frias said.

Coffee in hand, he parked himself on the grass and went to work, alternately typing on his laptop and scribbling away in his notebook with a pen. Cash and credit, analog and digital, he says: "There's room for both. You shouldn't have to choose."

He recalls that when his family immigrated to the U.S. and started up a restaurant, they had a tough time getting access to credit. Whereas cash, he says, is colour-blind.

"Cash is basically for everyone," Frias says, "no matter where you come from or who you are."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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