Declining Use of Cash Impacts Those Experiencing Homelessness

Carrying cash seems to be more and more of something of the past. As mobile payment options expand and more people prefer debit or credit cards, the use of cash is declining in the United States. Transactions can seamlessly occur with the press of a button or a swipe of a finger. As cash-carrying decreases, donations to individuals experiencing homelessness decreases as well.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 showed that fewer people use cash weekly than in years prior. The study also indicated that with increased cash-alternative payment methods, fewer people worry about whether they are carrying cash. People are more confident that businesses will accept credit or debit cards or mobile app payment opportunities, like Venmo.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in high demand for contactless payment. At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization stated that people should avoid physical currency to help reduce the potential risk of virus transmission.

Also, the Pew Research Center study notes that those who do not use cash or do not worry about their cash-carrying amount are often in higher income brackets. This reflects the pattern that people who have lower socioeconomic statuses often face obstructions to banking. Cashless alternatives favor higher socioeconomic classes, often overlooking those who are more dependent on cash. One such population suffering from the decreased use of cash is individuals experiencing homelessness.

The decline of cash-carrying has translated into decreased rates of cash donations to people experiencing homelessness. Individuals who panhandle would have received cash donations twenty years ago are now confronted with the more frequent response, “Sorry, I only have a card.”

This decreased rate of cash donations to individuals experiencing homelessness poses a serious challenge to these individuals. Often, individuals experiencing homelessness do not possess the means of accepting a card or mobile payment-based donations. As a result, people who are homeless depend on cash donations.

How does this work as the United States is increasingly becoming a cash-light society?

Perhaps looking to our international community may help. Certain areas worldwide have approached this dichotomy of limited cash supply and homeless individuals by heavily depending on cash donations with innovative solutions.

China, for instance, has utilized QR codes for individuals experiencing homelessness. QR codes are distributed to individuals experiencing homelessness so that they gain access to mobile donations. Individuals can donate to individual’s respective QR codes through mobile payment options, like WeChat, a popular “super” app in China. Additionally, individuals who are homeless do not need mobile devices to use this QR code- a paper QR code copy will work just fine. Stores simply scan the code and utilize the funds available within the individuals’ mobile currency account.

As the United States increasingly shifts away from cash, we need to be proactive. Until a long-term solution for the homeless is implemented, solutions such as China’s QR codes are worth considering. Iterations of this system are emerging within the United States, but not at rates sustainable enough to address the gap between decreasing cash donations and the increasing homelessness crisis.


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