Kohl-Welles pushes to ensure cash-reliant residents can participate in King County economy
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles on Thursday introduced legislation to require businesses in unincorporated King County to accept cash.
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles on Thursday introduced legislation to require businesses in unincorporated King County to accept cash. The measure is meant to ensure everyone has access to the economy, especially people who don’t or can’t access bank accounts, credit cards and other financial instruments.
“When I am out and about, I am finding that more and more businesses are only accepting payment by credit cards or smart phones rather than cash,” Kohl-Welles said. “I believe the trend in this direction is highly problematic as it will prevent many people in our community who do not have bank accounts from participating in the economy. And this isn’t just a novel problem – it has the capacity to further hurt our most marginalized communities from accessing the goods and services they need to survive.”
During and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses in the Seattle area and beyond began shifting to cashless operation, leaving people who rely on cash with fewer options to purchase goods and services. Research, however, shows that cashless businesses most impact communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, undocumented residents, refugee and immigrant and communities and low-income communities.
At least 2.1% of Washington residents are unbanked, meaning they don’t have bank accounts, credit cards or other typical financial services, according to the 2021 FDIC Household Survey. Five-year estimates put that number even higher – at 3.1%. More than 17% of residents are underbanked, meaning they might have a bank account but often rely on alternative financial services, such as money orders, check-cashing services and payday loans.
If applied to King County, these figures mean approximately 67,000 people could be unbanked and more than 380,000 people could be underbanked.
It’s unclear how many – if any – businesses in unincorporated King County have gone cashless, but Kohl-Welles intends the proposal as a tool to anticipate a future issue as this trend continues.
“While it is true that this legislation will only pertain to unincorporated King County, I believe that King County is a trend- and example-setter,” Kohl-Welles said. “I am confident that if this ordinance is approved, we will bring attention on this burgeoning issue to a much wider audience.”
Of those who still use cash for most purchases, the largest shares are people of color and those with the lowest incomes, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
A shift to more cashless businesses would leave these people with fewer and fewer options to make purchases, including for food and essential services.
The legislation would require businesses in unincorporated King County to accept cash for most retail transactions, and to not charge higher prices than for another form of payment. It would allow for retailers to only accept up to $250 in cash payment for single transactions larger than that amount. It would allow for civil actions to be brought by someone whose cash payment was refused.
“Tens of thousands of King County residents are unbanked, especially low-income seniors,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “Already they’re locked out of so much in our high-cost region just because they can’t afford high rents or expensive meals. At the very least, everyone deserves to be able to buy the things they can afford. That’s why TRU supports this important legislation, to make sure that people don’t walk into a store and find out that their cash doesn’t count.”
The proposal (ordinance number 2023-0027) will be referred to the Local Services committee.