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News / Business

Should stores have to accept cash? King County weighs the question

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: June 8, 2023, 7:58am

SEATTLE — On every dollar bill, every paper piece of U.S. currency, it says, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

In practice, that is no longer true.

Lots of businesses shun cash, from the smallest food trucks to the largest venues in the Seattle region.

A push from the Metropolitan King County Council to change that — to require restaurants, stores and shops, to accept cash — ran into headwinds Tuesday. A vote on the measure, which would have applied only to unincorporated areas of the county, was delayed as it appeared it may not have enough support to pass.

The proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, is meant to ensure that food and basic goods remain available for people who don’t have access to credit cards or bank accounts.

But it ran into objections from council members who were concerned they didn’t have a solid understanding of the scale of the problem in King County and worried about cost and safety issues that could come from requiring small businesses to accept cash.

“I would like to request, unfortunately, a two-week delay,” Kohl-Welles said, after debate on the legislation. “And hope we can find a way to get everybody on board.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend of businesses rejecting cash, in favor of digital payments that can be more convenient for employees and carry less risk of theft.

Lumen Field, T-Mobile Park and Climate Pledge Arena all refuse cash, while offering reverse ATMs that will give a prepaid card in exchange for cash.

But credit and debit cards, Venmo, Apple Pay and the like are not accessible to everyone.

Bank On Washington, a collaboration of financial institutions, nonprofit groups and local governments, estimates that 3% of Washington residents don’t have a bank account or access to credit cards or personal checks. An additional 17% are “underbanked,” meaning they may have a bank account but also rely on things like money orders, check-cashing services and payday loans rather than credit cards or traditional loans.

Applied to King County, that translates to 67,000 residents without a bank account and 380,000 who are underbanked. Applied to unincorporated King County, that translates to 7,400 residents without a bank account and 42,000 underbanked.

Councilmember Claudia Balducci said those numbers came from taking the statewide estimates of an advocacy group and applying them to King County, not from an independent study.

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“Did we look at King County’s population and do any analysis?” she asked. “The answer is no.”

Councilmember Sarah Perry worried about businesses in remote locations who, for safety reasons, have chosen not to accept cash.

There are around 1,500 retail businesses in unincorporated King County that would be covered by the legislation, which would apply to in-person transactions only.

Businesses would only be required to accept cash for purchases up to $200 and would not have to accept denominations higher than $20.

“Our government should really take some steps here to look out for folks who are on the edges of our economy,” said Councilmember Rod Dembowski. “Let them participate fully by handing over an Abe Lincoln or a Hamilton.”

Massachusetts and New Jersey, as well as the cities of New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., all have laws requiring retailers to accept cash.

Twice last year, the U.S. House passed legislation, with bipartisan support, that would require retail businesses to accept cash for payments under $200. But the bill failed to advance in the Senate.

Nationwide, Black and Hispanic adults are about twice as likely as white adults to say they use cash for all or almost all purchases, according to a Pew Research Center study.

“Most of our members living on the street don’t carry debit or credit cards, let alone have access to any kind of banking,” said Harald Hyllseth, policy and advocacy manager for the Chief Seattle Club, which provides housing assistance and services to Native people. “You shouldn’t need a bank account just to have the right to purchase goods.”

“When someone is hungry and they have $10 cash in hand it is all too cruel an irony that they couldn’t be able to buy the food that is staring them in the window,” said Jon Grant, chief strategy officer for the Low Income Housing Institute.

Kohl-Welles said the measure was all the more important in unincorporated areas, where stores can be few and far between and if one shop refuses cash, there may not be another option right around the corner.

“It’s not hypothetical, it’s not theoretical, this is happening,” she said. “Real people’s lives are being affected.”

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