Do you still like to pay for things in cash? Or do you prefer swiping a credit card, scanning your phone and making purchases with apps like Apple Pay, Venmo and Zelle?

Do you think paper money and coins will eventually go the way of the phone book and the VHS tape? Do you look forward to a world without cash?

In “The Cost of Going Cashless,” Pamela Paul, an Opinion columnist, writes about the often hidden downsides of life without cash. She begins with the story of how one ice cream business fought to make cash a thing of the past:

Six dollars and 50 cents is a lot to pay for a scoop of ice cream, no matter how artisanal. But that’s the cost at Van Leeuwen’s 20 ice cream shops in New York City. It’s especially egregious when you consider that a full pint of Van Leeuwen, which contains two and a half servings of ice cream, depending on your self-discipline, costs only a few dollars more.

But some people haven’t been allowed to pay for Van Leeuwen’s ice cream, be it vegan or French, at all. For nearly two years after New York City banned retail stores from being cashless, Van Leeuwen shops in New York refused to comply. The company bore down on this defiance with a brazenness that felt almost ideological. Not only did signs warn customers that its stores did not take cash — until last month, when it finally acquiesced after threat of legal action — it violated the law at least 90 times and declined to show up for administrative hearings. The company also declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

“Nobody should be discriminated against because they only want to or can pay with cash,” Vilda Vera Mayuga, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, told me after Van Leeuwen finally conceded defeat. “It’s not for the business to decide who they want to serve.”

Ms. Paul overviews some of the benefits and beneficiaries of going cashless, as well as some of the not so apparent downsides:

Many people believe cashless is the wave of the future, citing Sweden as an example. Countries such as India and South Korea have also made a strong push toward a cash-free future. According to an analysis of sales data by the payment platform Square, the share of cashless businesses nearly doubled in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada between February 2020 and February 2021; in the United States, cash payments dropped more than 8 percentage points in that period. And while the United States is far from the vanguard on going cash-free, here consumers use either credit or debit cards for 57 percent of transactions. As of 2022, 41 percent of Americans say they go cashless in a typical week, up from 24 percent in 2015.

So who’s paying for all this? While cash-free means profits for credit card industries and efficiencies for merchants in terms of training workers and managing their time, it isn’t cost-free for everyone. One recent study found that merchants increase their prices by approximately 1.4 percent to offset the interchange fees they pay to credit card companies; for those earning miles, that may not matter — but those who pay cash pay the price. Moreover, many cashless venues use tablet payment systems that automatically ask consumers to tip for a retail service that was long standard. If you’re like me, that screen may leave you flummoxed: Are the workers being paid less than minimum wage because these are now tipped jobs? Will this barista think I’m a jerk for not tacking on 20 percent or 30 percent for a muffin?

Consumers also pay in terms of privacy. Do you want your payment app or credit card company to share exactly how many beers or Big Macs you’ve bought in the past week with its data partners, or to know every item you picked up at the pharmacy? And while a cash system is subject to crime, like employee theft and robbery, digital payments aren’t without their own risks, including double charges and identity theft.

But the most significant objection to a cashless system is whom it shuts out. Whereas cash enables everyone, no matter their age, credit history, immigration status or income, to pay directly for goods or services rather than use an intermediary, credit cards generally require a bank account. Not everyone — including 301,700 households, or almost one in 10 households in New York City — has one. And even those who do don’t necessarily want to add to their credit card debt. Regardless of whether they have a choice, teenagers and people earning less than $30,000 a year are more likely to use cash. This is also disproportionately true for minorities.

The essay ends:

Going cashless sounds so sleek and shiny and tech-forward, but like many high-tech initiatives, it doesn’t necessarily translate into progress for all. Given this country’s ongoing inflation, given the persistence of its profound wealth disparities, given the paycheck-to-paycheck lives of many Americans, widening another divide between the haves and the have-nots isn’t the cost-free leap forward proponents make it out to be. Someone always pays the price.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How do you buy things? Do you still like to pay for things in cash? Or do you prefer to use digital services like Apple Pay, Venmo or Zelle? Tell us your favorite payment method and why.

  • Ms. Paul notes that, as of 2022, 41 percent of Americans say they go cashless in a typical week and that consumers use either credit or debit cards for 57 percent of transactions. Are you surprised by these findings? How do your buying habits compare to those of your peers or society as a whole? Is cash going out of style?

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about paper money and coins? Do you like having money you can touch and hold in your hand? Do you think having tangible currency teaches people — especially young people — to better understand and appreciate the value of money? Or do you think that a pocketful of grimy pennies and fading dollars is a quaint relic of the past, and that it is now time to embrace a cashless digital future? Should we all go cashless?

  • What do you see as the costs and possible downsides of a cashless society? Do you agree with Ms. Paul that “Someone always pays the price,” even if it might not be so apparent when you scan your phone to buy something quickly? How concerned should we be about the large profits enjoyed by banks and credit card companies, the privacy risks for consumers and the people who might be shut out of a cashless system, like immigrants or people without strong credit histories? How persuasive are Ms. Paul’s warnings about going cashless?

  • What’s your reaction to the case of Van Leeuwen’s ice cream detailed at the top of the essay? Should all businesses still have a cash option, even if many customers prefer to forgo it? Or should more places follow the lead of cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City and pass legislation forbidding merchants from refusing to accept cash?

  • Do you think we will ever live in a completely cash-free economy? If so, how soon might that happen?

Jeremy Engle

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