Refusing cash payments disadvantages Canada’s most vulnerable populations
It’s an experience most of us have become accustomed to: you step into a cafe, mask on, hands freshly sanitized at the front door. You order your drink, whip open your wallet, and pull out your debit card to seal the deal. You’re playing by the rules — as you should — and this includes your decision to pay with plastic. After all, there’s a sign taped to the sheet of plexiglass separating you and your barista that reads: “TO PROTECT BOTH YOU AND OUR STAFF, PLEASE PAY WITH DEBIT/CREDIT ONLY.”
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has led many vendors to favour card over cash in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. For a lot of people, this transition is no big deal. We’re so used to tapping our cards and completing transactions in a matter of milliseconds that now even entering our pincodes feels like a chore, let alone counting out bills and taking back the change. Even before COVID hit, paper (or rather, polymer) money was on the outs: in a 2018 survey, a quarter of Canadian cash users reported a decrease in their usage over the previous year. Evidently, the rise of credit-rewards, online-shopping, and mobile payment technology has caused many consumers to cut down on cash, leaving their piggy banks to collect dust.
For some Canadians, however, the transition from paper to plastic isn’t so simple. According to data from the World Bank, nearly one per cent of Canadians are unbanked, meaning they’re entirely unserved by banks or similar financial institutions. Other sources, such as ACORN Canada, report that up to three per cent of the population are unbanked — that’s roughly 1.1 million people. While it’s true that opening a bank account is usually free, keeping it isn’t; most accounts charge monthly fees that, for many people, aren’t worth the added expense. Plus, opening a bank account requires sufficient identification, which thousands of homeless and precariously-homed Canadians don’t possess.
In mid-March, just as COVID’s first wave began to take off, the Bank of Canada asked vendors to continue accepting cash to avoid putting an “undue burden on those who depend on cash and limited payment options.” Despite this statement, there are still signs with dejected-looking emojis on them that read “NO CASH” taped to storefront windows, even as we reach the end of September. Although vendors, workers, and consumers are doing everything they can to keep their interactions as contactless as possible, experts say banning cash isn’t necessary. According to the experts, handling bank notes is no riskier than touching other surfaces such as doorknobs, handrails, and the buttons on debit machines. As long as appropriate safety measures are respected following the use of cash, such as thorough handwashing, it’s considered a socially responsible way to spend money.
The barriers preventing vulnerable populations from achieving security and stability are endless, and putting up another barrier will only further escalate these inequalities. For too many, the freedom to pay cash isn’t a choice, but a means of survival. If you’re able to choose debit or credit, then by all means, do. But if you’re someone with the power to refuse or accept a bank note, it might be time to change your mind about change.
Graphic by Lily Cowper