Wednesday 29 March 2017 (17h12) :
Invisible people: cashless societies don’t kill poverty, but the poorest ones

By : Morgan Connors

The idea is becoming a trend; going cashless and only using electronic and online payment methods. But if dematerializing money may not change the richest’ daily routines, the poor could be the first to feel the impact of a cashless society. To them, no access to banking or to internet translates to the impossibility to receive any kind of help. In other word a cashless nation would become a nightmare.

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Everywhere in the world, the act of giving money, whether it’s a present to someone we know, a sign of help to a neighbor or charity after a natural disaster, is usually done from hand to hand with cash. In many cases, giving money, instead of material goods is the best way to be sure that the person will be helped. It gives them the buying power they need at a critical time.

Until this day, cash money is always accepted regardless who the buyer is and what situation he is in. In a case of a disaster, cash is often the most efficient way to work as ATMs, internet and electronic payment systems may not work for weeks and that is when the peak of the crisis is.

After typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) conducted a research on the use of cash transfer for humanitarian purposes in case of natural disasters. Their conclusions stated that cash is still the best response to help a population in dire needs; ‘Donors and aid agencies developing humanitarian responses should routinely consider cash transfers as the ‘first best’ response to crises’, the ODI’s panel of experts concludes. Instead of looking first for reasons not to use cash as aid, the report proposes: ‘The question that should be asked is ‘why not cash?’ (1).

The question is exactly the same for people who are in a situation of distress all year long in rich or poor countries. The homeless, the unemployed, the ‘street youth’, migrants, refugees, all these populations experience the same suffering and would be even more marginalized in a cashless world. Only they know their needs at a precise moment and to this day only cash is able to satisfy these needs.

In Denmark, the imminent move towards a cashless society has been growing alongside the fear that certain population would find themselves in a much worse situation than what they experience today. Several associations have already expressed their concerns and asked the government to backtrack on its decision in order to protect the most vulnerable citizens. In the UK, the homeless are today able to make some money by selling Big Issue in the streets, a newspaper and magazine launched by the Big Issue Foundation and which is the biggest success story in the homelessness sector. Today the Big Issue is a cash transaction although some sellers have already started to accept payments using a mobile card reader. But rapidly, the image of the magazine has dropped as well as the sales.

"These tech-savvy vendors don’t match the stereotype of what a homeless person should look like," said Foundation CEO Stephen Robertson. “We’re trying to help people who are socially, financially excluded – but sometimes the public expect a Big Issue seller to look appropriately Dickensian and not be using a mobile phone. The challenge is to make society accept the fact that people who are homeless can have iPhones too and are trying to rebuild their lives, not beg their way through it.’’ he added (2). Soon after, the story became a scandal and the social media took on exposing a Curzon Street beggar who accepted card payments prompting a police investigation, the Daily Mail eventually labeled him ‘a scrounger’ who ‘rakes in cash’ and spends it on ‘foreign trips and iPad’.

These examples prove that by going cashless, the gap between the most vulnerable and the rest of the society will keep growing. Populations who are today in dire needs will find themselves completely isolated even if they try to keep it with technology and with the laws that are made, completely ignoring their reality. A cashless society could truly eradicate mendicity and street beggars, as no one would be able to give them any form of financial aid. The problem is that it would not eradicate poverty, and will place them in a much worse situation in which charity from one human to another could become a thing from the past.

We can’t allow people who find themselves on the streets to remain stuck there forever. Our societies are based on the hope of being able to change your life. Many people who are homeless today might have worked in the past, yet they have no creditworthiness but it shouldn’t be a barrier for them to getting support and start a new life. For them a cashless society could become an unescapable nightmare spiral and our governments need to start looking at them before taking any further step towards a cashless world.

(1) The case for cash, Red Cross Red Crescent, December 15th 2016 (2) A cashless society could be a nightmare for the homeless, The Telegraph, May 28th 2015

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