Visit a store in a U.S. city, and you're bound to see a sign near the checkout line that reads: “Credit or debit cards only.” Cash is strictly prohibited because, like most of us, store owners aren’t sure whether the coronavirus can spread via surface contact. To mitigate that risk, they’ve banned the exchange of cash temporarily.
But, to use an oft-used phrase from this pandemic, cashless may be the new normal.
The United States was already moving away from hard cash before the pandemic, since most of us are now completely dependent on technology and the internet that services it. We do our banking through an app on our phones, our credit cards are connected to dozens of easy-pay services such as Venmo, and few transactions give customers the opportunity to pull out cash.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have solidified the public's preference for digital, no-contact payments — not just because it’s easier, but also because it’s safer. A 2017 study of $1 bills passed around New York City found traces of bacteria and viruses from humans, horses, gray wolves, and wild boar all over the bills. Nothing about that is sanitary. And now that many people are, perhaps, more health-conscientious than they were in the past, it’s easy to understand why cash isn’t an ideal option anymore.
Indeed, cash is so sparse nowadays that the U.S. is experiencing a national coin shortage — meaning not that there are fewer coins, but that the circulation of those coins has stopped almost completely.
As with most technological shocks, the retreat from cash will be convenient for the well-off and a huge hassle for the working class. Some 8 million U.S. households are “unbanked,” according to a 2017 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which means they rely on money orders, pawnshop loans, payday loans, and other forms of immediate payments throughout their day-to-day lives. Without cash on hand, an unbanked person could struggle to pay for essentials, since access to online credit isn’t guaranteed. Indeed, almost 30% of people in the U.S. don’t own credit cards, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.
But the unbanked (or the folks who like cash) won't likely get a say. The decision has been made that it's time for change.