Cash hasn’t been dethroned, yet.
In the age of Square, Apple Pay, and Amazon Go, buying a sandwich or beer with paper money may feel like a throwback to simpler, neolithic times. But on Feb. 27, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney signed into law a bill requiring that stores accept cash. So those times are guaranteed at least a temporary reprieve from an otherwise looming extinction.
That is a very good thing.
The bill, which takes effect July 1, represents the first time a major U.S. city has codified into law the requirement for most businesses to accept cash. It seeks to counter a move to cashless stores, which critics have called out as both an invasion of privacy and a form of discrimination against the poor and unbanked.
“Most of the people who don’t have credit tend to be lower income, minority, immigrants,” Philadelphia city councilman William Greenlee, who introduced the bill, told the Wall Street Journal. “It just seemed to me, if not intentional, at least a form of discrimination.”
Greenlee isn’t the only one who’s troubled by the encroachment of a cashless society. As the New York Times reports, the governments of New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington are all debating similar bills.
The move by businesses away from cash — exemplified by the likes of the upscale Blue Bottle coffee chain, which is trying out a cash-banning experiment starting this month — is a boon for data-hungry credit card companies. Visa went so far as to, in the words of spokesperson Andy Gerlt to the Associated Press, officially “[declare] war on cash” in 2017.
In the age of surveillance capitalism and nonstop data breaches, this should worry you. Having every single transaction you make recorded and sent to several third parties, where that record lives on in perpetuity, sets the stage for a time when every questionable purchase — like buying drinks at a credit card company flagged bar, or, say, a chrome skull — can come back to haunt you.
Having the option to pay in cash allows people to spend their money how they want, without the very real fear that their purchases might be used against them in some presently unforeseeable way.
But back to the more tangible idea of cashless societies discriminating against the poor. Mayor Kenney’s spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that 26 percent of Philadelphia residents are below the poverty line. Many of those, he told the paper, are unbanked.
Seeing a “no cash accepted here” sign might, for those without access to credit cards or other forms of digital payment, read as the equivalent as a warning telling them to stay away. Philadelphia, and many other cities, are attempting to head that future off at the pass.
Time will tell if they succeed.