In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — days most of us can barely remember — the uncertainty of how the virus was spread led to any number of policy changes. As folks slowly peeled off their rubber gloves and realized that they didn’t need to engage in a bidding war over the last N95 mask on Amazon, many of these policies have relaxed as well. We know now that duration of exposure is key, that fresh air is critical and that drinking bleach is a bad idea (though, to be clear, most of us were well aware of that last fact).
One unchanging policy is the push by many businesses to go cashless.
In a lot of ways, the pandemic has allowed many businesses to modernize in ways they already wanted to: Even the grimiest bars have gotten Square readers now. Moving away from cash is a current that’s a long time coming, and the pandemic has only quickened the pace. And because shortage begets shortage, COVID-19 has created a national coin shortage, which further encourages consumers to not use cash.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of folks who get left behind when payment options consolidate and go digital. As I’ve written before, there remains a substantial subset of the population who need to use cash for their daily dealings. Undocumented folks, survivors of domestic violence, street-based sex workers, those who work off-the-books and those who rely on assistance or community might be unable to open a bank account, or may feel unsafe doing so.
According to recent numbers from the FDIC, an estimated 7 million American households are unbanked or underbanked, meaning they don’t have access to services like checking accounts or savings or the ability to open a debit card.
Even those who can get a debit card may not be able to conveniently top up or refill it without reliable Wi-Fi or branch options (since COVID has limited banking hours, too). Whereas most housed and financially stable folks don’t think twice about putting down our card for small purchases that may have previously been conducted in cash, unbanked folks may have to make careful decisions about when to pay with cash and when to use a card.
In the pandemic, those decisions are even harder. The coin shortage and COVID-19 in general have created an atmosphere where cash is almost completely unusable. And while a lot of technocrats will celebrate this era of plastic that coronavirus has ushered in, for those who have struggled to pay for things in the past, it’s a future that doesn’t have many options.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, GOOD, the New York Daily News, NPR and elsewhere.
Read more in the Nov. 4-10, 2020 issue.