Anna van der Heijden

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“Sorry, we don’t accept cash,” is something you soon won’t hear around New York anymore. A bill that prohibits food and retail establishments from refusing cash, spearheaded by Council Member Ritchie Torres and sponsored by Bushwick’s City Council Representative Rafael Espinal, was passed last week. 

“Plain and simple,” Espinal told Bushwick Daily, “businesses will no longer be able to decide to only take cards.” 

You’ve probably seen the signs saying: “this is a cashless café” or “cards only.” But when a shop, café or restaurant refuses to take cash, they basically say: “you’re not welcome” to people who don’t own bank accounts. Since these people are often low-income New Yorkers, going cashless excludes these people and becomes an almost-elitist business decision. 

More and more establishments decide to go cashless for convenience and safety reasons. They don’t have to spend hours counting cash after the store closes, the payment process goes faster resulting in shorter lines, and they don’t have to be scared of robberies, because their cash drawers are empty. 

Partners Coffee (previously Toby’s Estate) decided to try going cashless in their Bushwick café, after they tried it successfully in their Urbanspace Vanderbilt kiosk location. Co-founder and director Amber Jacobsen explained in an email that less than 5 percent of transactions in their Vanderbilt kiosk were done in cash. Due to their scarcity, these cash payments ended up costing them more because of labor costs and bank surcharges. 

“We had no complaints in Vanderbilt, so we decided to test a cashless [Point of Sale] in our Bushwick location for the same reasons,” said Jacobsen. “Overall, Bushwick café customers have not had a negative response to the cashless system and we haven’t seen it take away from our café experience, where we prioritize a warm and welcoming environment.” The café will comply with reinstating cash payments per the City Council’s timeline.

Photo by Kody Gautier on Unsplash.

Cashless establishments might not be a problem for most New Yorkers, but for people without bank accounts, it can be frustrating. According to the city’s data from 2013, 25 percent of New Yorkers are underbanked—they depend on cash for most of their daily transactions—and 12 percent are unbanked—they don’t have access to a bank account. In Bushwick, these numbers are worse: almost 30 percent are underbanked and 20 percent are unbanked. 

People who are underbanked or unbanked are often low-income or undocumented people who depend on a fixed income, live off of minimum wage or get paid in cash (for instance, many people working in the service industry). In Bushwick, around 25 percent of the community is considered to live in poverty, which, according to Espinal, is directly connected to being underbanked or unbanked. “It’s expensive to be poor,” he said, because it is hard to open a bank account when you can’t afford a deposit or have to accept extra charges whenever you cash a cheque. 

“These are folks who for a very long time have been dealing with a lot of these socio-economic issues that the city has created and I believe that these businesses would further create and stigmatize this population,” said Espinal. 

Bushwick doesn’t count many cashless places yet—there are even a few cash-only establishments like Tina’s Place and Swallow Café. Establishments that choose to go cashless are often higher-enf chains like Bluestone Lane and Sweetgreen that don’t have locations in Bushwick. These chains easily charge around $4 for a coffee and $14 for a salad. When asked if that would be the kind of place someone with a limited budget would visit, Espinal was very clear:

“I would argue that, first, there is no reason why we should believe that anyone who makes a lower income should not be able to buy themselves something that is considered higher quality. And two, you know, it is a growing trend and what’s to say that it won’t start at the expensive coffee shops and spread into local supermarkets?” 

By passing this bill, they are getting ahead of a trend they believe shuts out low-income communities. Under this legislation, establishments will get fined $1,000 every time they refuse a cash payment. 

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

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