Photo by Dixie D. Vereen via Getty Images

New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres sees them as racially exclusionary, and the data backs him up

Tim Nelson
November 28, 2018

If you’ve ordered a salad from Sweetgreen or dined at any number of other trendy fast-casual restaurants in urban areas, you’ve likely noticed that some establishments do not accept cash. You probably paid the declaration no mind—if anything, you might’ve been thankful not to come across a card minimum.

But as it turns out, there’s a cost to cash-exclusionary restaurants and coffee shops that many might not notice. That’s part of why New York City Council Member Ritchie J. Torres is introducing legislation this week that would ban the business practice within the five boroughs. If passed, any restaurant, cafe, or retail operation that refused to transact with cash could be subject to fines issued by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs.

“I started coming across coffee shops and cafés that were exclusively cashless and I thought: But what if I was a low-income New Yorker who has no access to a card?” Torres, who represents the 15th City Council district, told Grubstreet. “I thought about it more and realized that even if a policy seems neutral in theory, it can be racially exclusionary in practice... I see it as a way to gentrify the marketplace.”

Data suggests Torres has a point. According to a report by New York City Comptroller’s office, the assumption that every New Yorker has access to a debit or a credit card simply doesn’t hold up. An estimated 825,000 adults in the city don’t have a checking account, which represents 13 percent of all NYC households. “In some neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Melrose in the Bronx,” the report states, “over half of all residents are classified as ‘unbanked.’”

Nationwide FDIC data also bolsters Torres’ claims that cashless policies disproportionately affect minorities. About 17% of surveyed black households were unbanked in 2017, as were 14% of hispanic households. Across all ethnicities, a solid majority (58.7%) of unbanked respondents in 2017 said they were “not at all likely” to open a bank account within the next 12 months.

While businesses claim cashlessness is a more efficient, secure, and environmentally-friendly option, such moves haven’t been met with universal acclaim within New York City. Shake Shack conducted a high-profile experiment earlier this year that saw the burger company eliminate cash payments at a new Astor Place location, but scrapped the experiment after customer complaints.

"[One] of the things we've clearly seen is that our guests do often want to pay with cash," Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti said in an earnings call quoted by Motley Fool. "In the first rollout at Astor Place, we did not accept cash at all. And there are people who have told us very clearly, 'We want to pay with cash.'"

Still, Torres fears that society will eventually come to view paper currency with the same scorn as EBT cards unless the tides are turned. He told Grubstreet that he “expect[s] a big fight” from business interests, but feels that it’s worth taking a stand and raising awareness of an issue that primarily affects those who are already underrepresented in the political arena.

“Part of the purpose of the bill is to educate people about the insidious racism of a cashless business model,” he said. “But what we have happening is a creeping delegitimization of cash, and I worry about the racial ramifications of that.”

Whether Torres’ crusade against cashlessness proves quixotic or not, it’s an important reminder that subtle changes in the food world can often have unexpected consequences for those outside our respective bubbles. That’s certainly something to chew on next time you feel like cursing out the person in front of you who’s waiting for their change.


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