The Council of the District of Columbia is considering banning cashless businesses following similar legislative measures across the country.
The bill, introduced by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), would penalize vendors that do not offer a cash option for payment. Adopted for perceived security benefits and to ward off robberies, cashless businesses have been criticized for being inaccessible to people with lower incomes who may not possess a bank account. Grosso introduced similar legislation in February 2019 and June 2018, neither of which passed the council vote.
Cashless businesses increase socioeconomic divisions among D.C. residents, according to Grosso.
“By denying patrons the ability to use cash as a form of payment, businesses are effectively telling lower-income and young patrons that they are not welcome,” Grosso wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Practices like this further stratify our diverse city when we should be working to foster greater inclusion.”
The bill should benefit marginalized groups as cashless businesses often block low-income patrons from paying, according to Meryl Chertoff, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law.
“I observed how the operation of cashless businesses in the District created two tiers of customer,” Chertoff wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Those who carried bank cards or apps, generally well-off people, and the poor and unbanked who disproportionately in DC are people of color, or the undocumented.”
Businesses should accept cash to treat all of their customers equitably and respectfully and make their products and services more accessible, according to Chertoff.
“Retail establishments are places of public accommodation. If I come into a coffee shop with $10 in my pocket I should be treated the same if it is cash I earned running chores, or salary loaded on my debit card from my employer the investment bank,” Chertoff wrote. “Money in your pocket is a source of dignity and autonomy for each of us.”
The bill comes as part of a broader movement against cashless operations around the country. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco have passed laws banning cashless businesses, according to WAMU. Additionally, the U.S. Congress is considering enacting a similar measure.
Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) cosponsored the bill to promote equitable consumer access throughout the country, he wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“There’s a substantial number of District residents who do not have credit or debit cards,” Mendelson wrote. “They are excluded from retail opportunities. This is about equity for all residents.”
An increasingly cashless economy also encroaches on consumers’ privacy as credit and debit cards leave an online trail of purchased items and shopping locations, according to Chertoff.
“The real world increasingly will mirror the online one if the cashless model expands, as each swipe of a card, like each click of your mouse, enables the data miners to ascertain your location, buying preferences, health needs and habits,” Chertoff wrote. “All that data lets them build an increasingly granular picture of who you are.”
The Corp launched a cashless policy in February 2018, garnering criticism from members of the Georgetown University community, including 2019-2020 Georgetown University Student Association President Norman Francis Jr. (COL ’20).
“It is an elitist practice that prevents a lot of students, especially low-income students, from living properly on campus by making basic life necessities such as food or cleaning supplies inaccessible,” Francis wrote to The Hoya for a September 2019 article. “Cashless is classist, plain and simple.”
Representatives from The Corp did not respond to The Hoya’s request for comment by publication.
The bill should not significantly impact the Georgetown student body but only expands students’ potential payment methods, according to Chertoff.
“The bill won’t change anything for Georgetown students who like to be cashless,” Chertoff wrote. “It just will give everyone the option to use cash for a retail purchase.”
A representative from the Washington Parking Association, a nonprofit organization of commercial parking operators, opposed the bill. The representative testified at the Feb. 13 meeting that accepting cash would be inefficient for some businesses, like parking garages, where attendants need to work quickly to reduce traffic. Others, including the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, expressed concerns that the bill does not include an exception for app-based payment models ride-share companies use.
Banning cashless methods will hurt D.C.’s economy, according to Erika Wadlington, a representative from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who spoke at the hearing, according to WAMU.
“We see a significant impact on current and emerging businesses in the District, as well as a hindrance to our innovative and creative economy,” Wadlington said.