As the reign of hard currency ends, poor people will feel the pain
Cash is king, supposedly. A dollar is 100 cents, and a quarter is 25 pennies. But when Real Change Vendor Ramon Lopez recently tried to use 30 quarters to pay for a $7 collar for his dog, Sassy, a cashier at the Shoreline Fred Meyer balked.
Lopez had stacked the coins on the conveyer belt to show how much money he had, but the cashier told him to move them onto the counter and warned him not to come in with change again, Lopez said.
He appealed—unsuccessfully—to both the cashier’s manager and the supervisor of that manager.
When Lopez argued that he had a right to use the coins, they kicked him out of the store. Lopez never bought the dog collar.
“I said, ‘Thanks for ruining my day,’ and I walked away,” he said.
It’s not the first time this has happened to Lopez. Last year, at a pet store in downtown Seattle, Lopez struggled to count out his bills and coins to pay for a coat for Sassy. The cashier insisted he didn’t have enough, trying to rush him along.
Lopez said he had enough money and held his ground. Sassy got the coat.
In the fast-paced world of credit cards and debit cards, it’s easy to assume that quick, computerized transactions are the norm.
That’s not the case for people who can’t afford a credit or debit card, or for people like Lopez, who sells his Real Change newspapers for cash.
“As monetary resources become more tied to plastic, there are certainly more challenges for people without addresses, regular access to mail, phone access ... than for everyone else,” said Daniel Hubbell of The Reach Project, a nonprofit serving chronically homeless people.
The societal gap between those who have credit cards and those whose resources are carried only in cash is growing, said Amoshaun Toft, who studies inequality and social change at the University of Washington Bothell. For many consumers, smart phones and virtual wallets with money stored in a data cloud are taking the place of paper currency.
In this new cashless society, homeless people and working people who are paid in cash are left out, Toft said.
Lopez’s experience goes against Fred Meyer’s stated policy.
Earlier this year, following a similar complaint at a store in Oregon, the company issued notices to all its stores reminding cashiers that customers can pay with as many coins as they want.
Melinda Merrill, a Fred Meyer spokesperson, was embarrassed by Lopez’s story.
“A customer is a customer, a dollar is a dollar,” she said. “If you have $35 in coins, we’re going to take it.”
There is no federal law requiring any business to accept cash. All bills are legal tender for debts and taxes, but private businesses are allowed to create their own policies regarding what forms of payment they accept.
Appearances can affect how policies are enforced, said Lewis Mandell, a finance professor and financial literacy expert who works for the University of Buffalo but lives in Seattle.
“If you or I showed up wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and handed someone eight quarters for a two-dollar payment, we probably wouldn’t get any kind of reaction at all,” he said.
Lopez is a Latino man with a shaved head and a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the inside of his right wrist.
People who know him say he’s a sweet, affectionate man who lives to make his dog happy. Sassy is spoiled, he joked in a soft, high tenor. He sleeps with his arms wrapped around the golden lab.
Retelling his story, Lopez described himself as easygoing and able to handle such slights. He immediately worried about other people in the same situation.
“What happens to these people who are less fortunate than I am, who come in with dimes?” he said.
Financial services companies are leading customers away from cash, offering incentives for those who pay with plastic. For example, at Apple stores, customers can’t use cash to purchase iPhones or iPads.
As a result of market forces, a smaller stream of new currency is flowing into the system. Every year from 2006 to 2010, the U.S. Department of Treasury printed fewer $1 bills.
The department printed 1.9 billion bills in 2010, the lowest number of $1 bills printed since 1980.
A 2008 Federal Reserve report showed a steady increase in cashless purchasing. According to the study, the U.S. had about 300 noncash payments per capita in 2006, three times the 1971 rate.
It’s not just bankcards cutting into cash spending.
Student identification cards and the popularity of bus passes tied to accounts are edging out demand for paper dollars, Mandell said.
Not everyone is primed to make the move from paper to plastic.
According to Pew Research, half of Americans own a smartphone. That’s a lot, but it still leaves 50 percent of the country without access to the technology.
Each new technology follows a similar pattern of adoption, said UW Bothell’s Toft.
Early adopters accept a new technology as the norm well before the technology is truly universal.
This keeps poor people out, not only of the use, but also of the development of a new technology. Credit cards, debit cards and digital wallets are designed for the people who can first afford them.
“It’s not just a matter of locking people out of a naturalized technological process,” Toft said. “It’s also about the shaping of a technology.”
Around the world, some are seeking simple solutions to the disappearance of money made of paper and metal.
Kenyans can make payments using simple text messages, no smartphone required.
Mandell suggested that America adopt a cash card system similar to what he uses in the Netherlands. There, cards at atms, act like electronic purses. The cards are anonymous, like a gift card, but charge about a fifth of a penny per transaction. Mandell said a similar system could be adopted for people who use cash in the U.S.
American banks are always behind the times in terms of innovation, and seem to have no interest in broadening access to electronic payments, Mandell said.
“Banks [in America] just don’t want to deal with the nonaffluent,” he said. “They just don’t see it as worth their time.”
It reads like Lopez was having trouble shopping at big stores such as Fred Meyer and somewhere downtown, and the article then goes on about banks and banking in America. I have found that by shopping at smaller locally owned stores, and by banking at local non-profit, member-owned credit unions I can have that personal, friendly, helpful interaction with those on the other side of the counter that is so missing in today’s Big Box/Big Bank America. We need to make an extra effort, even if it is less convenient and a little more expensive, to trade with our local small businesses, so they will thrive and continue to provide us with a kinder, human scale alternative to corporate businesses.
Well, I’ll spend my money elsewhere, other than Fred Meyer…I’ll go somewhere where they actually follow their own policies. Wish me luck in finding one.
Ann, Teres and John- Thank you so much for your generosity. I will talk to Ramon the next time he is in the office and get back to you ASAP. A collar or other items for Sassy is the greatest gift you could give Ramon. She means the world to him.
-Tara Moss, Real Change Program and HR Manager
This is entirely unacceptable, and I encourage everyone to write letters to Fred Meyer telling them as much.
President: Michael Ellis
3800 S.E. 22nd Avenue
Portland, OR 97202
I heard this story on KOMO 4 News yesterday and it just broke my heart. I wrote in to a friend who works for KOMO and she sent me this link. I’ve put the word out to some friends about this incident and we all want to come together and make a gift basket for Ramon and his dog Sassy. If you can please let me know what kind of dog Sassy is and where I can deliver this to, it would be much appreciated.
Thank you all for your support Sassy and I are greatly moved by your interest. We’re surely regaining some of our rights due to restorations through you all. I never thought that I’d ever experience a freedom of choice as we are experiencing today by being given another chance. Real Change YOU ROCK!!
Two great ideas for Sassy: we’re looking for a cat/kitten to adopt it’s time that she experience sharing her live with a playful cat/kitten of our own family. She loves my brothers cats and he has three.
The other is a beautiful matching bowl set. Something grand something we could take great pride in remembrance of your astonishing support
I was completely sickened when I read this story!!!! So are we now India with a caste system???? We say and over we are such free thinkers and so above other countries…yet this happens? Just who is this clerk that turns away money for the company he works for or a customer that has it? Pathetic!!!! I am completely shocked and irritated at such treatment. Fire the clerk…let him experience some hard times!!!!! To treat another human with such dismissal and disrespect makes me wonder how this person is allowed to deal in customer service at all. An apology from Fred Meyer does nothing for this homeless man or his dog. He was responsible enough to walk in and want to pay for a dog collar….How is Fred Meyer showing responsibility for a lame clerk!
Ramon, I just responded to your email asking you if anyone has said they would get you the bowls. Also, do you need any food etc? Please let me know how I can get you these items.
Sassy is going to get spoiled!!!
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