Should Cash-Free Businesses Be Made Illegal? This NYC Politician Thinks So

The debate over cashless payments continues, and if you’re not familiar yet with its finer points, trust me, you will be soon enough: arguments both for and against the concept are heating up.

Grub Street threw another log on the fire this week when it released an interview with NYC councilmember Ritchie J. Torres, who introduced legislation on Wednesday that would require restaurants around the city to accept cash. Should the bill pass, restaurants (and other stores) who refuse to take greenbacks would face fines: $250 for a first offense and $500 for each subsequent one.

As detailed in the interview, Torres — who represents the 15th Council District in central Bronx — believes that cash-free stores and restaurants discriminate. 

“On the surface, cashlessness seems benign, but when you reflect on it, the insidious racism that underlies a cashless business model becomes clear,” he said. He added that, “If you’re intent on a cashless business model, it will have the effect of excluding lower-income communities of color from what should be an open and free market.”

To Torres’ point, the “everyone-has-a-credit-card” argument actually misrepresents the real situation of many in New York and elsewhere, who because of poverty or lack of documentation have neither permanent address or bank account. According to the FDIC(PDF), roughly 14.1 million U.S. adults in 2017 were “unbanked,” meaning they had no checking or savings account; another 24.2 million were “underbanked,” or had a checking/savings account but also used services like money orders, payday loans, and check cashing, to name a few. 

Nonetheless, the so-called “cashless revolution” has certainly picked up speed in the last year, especially in hyper-gentrified NYC. Dos Toros, Two Forks, Sweetgreen, and basically most of Danny Meyer’s empire have all gone cashless. Outside New York, Starbucks started testing a cashless location in Seattle earlier this year. And there’s a growing number of places around major U.S. cities following suite: Wow Bao in Chicago; Petit Trois in LA; all Milk Bar locations.

Arguments in favor of the concept cite employee safety (you can’t hold up a store for its digital payments), more accurate accounting, and a smoother checkout process for customers as reasons for ditching cash.

But again, all of these arguments (intentionally or not) assume the entire population carries a credit card. The unbanked, underbanked, and undocumented aren’t just getting left out of the eating establishments, they’re getting left out of the very debate that surrounds them.

Even those who carry plastic or digital wallets have reasons against going cashless. For businesses, credit card processing fees (as well as hidden fees) can get expensive — particularly if you’re the endangered species otherwise known as an independent business. And some average citizens (yours truly included), prefer cash simply because it helps them budget their money. Plus, for businesses, when the system crashes, you can’t, uh, do business. 

Torres’ battle, of course, is mainly for the folks for whom paying with a card is not a choice, and for whom an uptick in cashless stores and restaurants would start to pose serious quality-of-life issues. Imagine going to buy your groceries for the week and being told you can only pay with Visa or Apple Pay. 

As far as whether the NYC bill passes, he’s cautiously optimistic, saying the City Council is a largely progressive one. Nonetheless, there will be blood, figuratively speaking. He expects the legislation to meet heavy opposition from big cash-free chains and the business sector in general. “I expect a big fight,” he told Grub Street. 

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this debate as continues to rev up. In the meantime, what do you think? Will cashless restaurants help or hurt us in the future? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.

Abner Flores