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Vote postponed on measure requiring Chicago businesses to accept cash

Earlier this year, Loop eatery The Goddess and the Baker, 225 N. LaSalle, joined the group of Chicago businesses that no longer accept cash. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Should Chicago flex its home-rule muscle by prohibiting city-licensed businesses from refusing cash?

Or should the cashless train be allowed to leave the station, leaving behind 300,000 Chicago households who don’t have a credit card or a checking account?

Those were the questions before the City Council’s License Committee Wednesday as aldermen debated a proposal to slow the movement toward a cashless society.

The proposal raised so many concerns its powerful champion, Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th), postponed a vote indefinitely.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Restaurant Association and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce all testified against the ordinance.

“This is about figuring out how we survive in a brick-and-mortar presence at a time when people are increasingly shopping online,” said Tanya Triche, vice-president and general counsel of the retail merchants group.

“Nobody wants empty storefronts. We have to figure out a way to allow business owners to be nimble in their response to their customer base. If that means going card-only, a business ought to have the right to do that. There are costs when you deal with cash — not only robberies, but theft traced back to employees. This takes all of that off the table. And it keeps employees safer.”

Restaurant association president Sam Toia said there’s a reason many of Chicago’s cashless restaurants are in the Loop and “do a huge lunch business.”

“People normally get 30 minutes for lunch. If you don’t have cash and you take only debit and credit, it gets the line moving faster by 10-to-15 percent,” Toia said.

Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) acknowledged “equality” issues in banking, but added: “A lot of store owners want to feel secure. A lot of customers don’t want to carry cash. And the technology is widely in use today.” She noted that Uber and Lyft already ban cash, and “many young people don’t carry cash. They do everything with debit cards.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) also sympathized with retailers after receiving a letter from the owner of an Austin business.

“He chooses not to accept cash because of the amount of robberies he’s had in the past. … What would be an answer that he could live with being a business owner having gone through this?” Mitts asked Burke.

Burke said it was all “part of the debate” that will likely unfold in the coming months as Chicago grapples with the “nationwide trend” toward plastic.

“Do we foreclose youngsters who want to stop at a 7-Eleven and get a bottle of orange juice on the way home from school from buying that … because they don’t have a credit card?” Burke said.

“What about the hardships that are then created for this unbanked, under-banked segment of our society, especially among the poor or the elderly or the disabled who simply don’t have a credit card? I’d welcome an expansion of the debate because, as Chicago goes, so goes the nation.”

Burke argued that the “insensitive” rush to go-cashless is being fueled by “retailers, aided and abetted by electronic payment giants who stand to reap millions in windfall profits on the backs of consumers.”

“It’s a discriminatory practice that also impacts credit card holders, who simply can’t afford to pay off their balances each month,” the alderman said.

“With mounting interest over time and the tendency of individuals to spend more using a credit card, it becomes crushing debt.”

Across the nation, 15.6 million adults and 7.6 million children are unbanked. Add to that the “under-banked” and the numbers rise to 51.1 million adults and 16.3 million children, Burke said.

In the Chicago area, 300,000 households with 770,000 people — 8.1 percent — have no one with a checking or savings account.

Michael Duffy is the founder and CEO of CityBase, Inc., a local technology company that operates a bill payment kiosk network for the city in close collaboration with payment centers operated by the city’s Department of Finance.

“One thing we’ve learned working closely with our most vulnerable households is that it’s very time consuming and very expensive to be poor,” Duffy said.

“We find it almost offensive that the Visa cartel is trying to reduce the use of cash when they agreed to charge us a 2 percent tax here in Chicago to process our official payments for the city.”