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About


Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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October 24, 2022

What the Payment Choice Act Means for Cash

Since the first paper billsOff-site link emerged in the United States in 1690, cash has been a payment choice for governments, merchants, and consumers in our nation.

The pandemic, though, changed things for cash users. Notices appeared at merchant locations like coffee shops, restaurants, and other retail sites throughout the country: "Credit or Debit Card Only" or "We are going cashless!" Merchants may choose not to accept cash for a variety of reasons, including hygiene concerns, banking office closures or reduced hours that often made it harder to get cash for the till, and coin supply issues that made it hard to make change even when cash was accepted. Surprisingly, even as the pandemic's influence is lifting, some merchants still refuse to accept cash.

However, that may change with the Payment Choice Act of 2021 (H.R.4395), introduced on July 9, 2021, and sponsored by Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-New Jersey). The proposed legislation is designed "to prohibit retail businesses from refusing cash payments, and for other purposes." The bill passed in the house twice: first on June 21, 2022, as an amendment to the Financial Services Racial Equity, Inclusion and Economic Justice ActOff-site link, and on July 14, 2022, as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization ActOff-site link. The bill would need to be passed by the SenateOff-site link to be enacted and we will keep an eye on its progress. A similar bill, Cash Always Should Be HonoredOff-site link, was introduced in 2019 by Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), who was concerned that cashless businesses discriminate against customers who do not have access to a credit card. The bill did not move forward but the PCA captures the original intention.

Key points in the Payment Choice Act include:

  • Requires retail businesses—those that sell or offer goods or services at retail to the public and accept in-person payments at a physical location—to accept cash as a form of payment for sales in amounts less than $2,000
  • Prohibits them from charging cash-paying customers a higher price compared to customers not paying with cash
  • Provides for enforcement through preventative relief and civil penalties

Our work in payments inclusion informs us that cash is a primary payment choice for about 7.1 million US households (5.4 percent)Off-site link that choose not to use banks. These rates are highest among low-income, Black, Hispanic, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. When cash is not accepted, it can create a barrier that excludes primary cash users from the payments system and from getting needed goods and services. This can create hardship for people and may also result in loss of business for merchants.

But isn't cash acceptance a requirement? The answer is no. While cash is US legal tender, merchants don't have to accept it. According to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve SystemOff-site link, "there is no federal statute mandating that a private business, a person, or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods or services."

Some states and citiesOff-site link (New Jersey, Colorado, Washington, DC, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco) have enacted similar merchant cash acceptance policies. Other states, like GeorgiaOff-site link, have bills pending. These legislative actions create a mandate for businesses that may override their choice to not accept cash as a payment option while protecting consumers' preferences to use cash. What do you think?

August 29, 2022

Is There a Cost to Payments Exclusion?

Beginning in the mid-1990s, economists have pointed out that debit card and cash users subsidize credit card usersOff-site link at the retail point of sale. How's that, you say?

In most cases, everyone, regardless of payment method, pays the same price for eggs, milk, bread, movie tickets, shoes, a couch, or airline tickets. And even though we all pay the same at checkout, those of us who use a credit card to pay could get a bit of a discount—say 1 percent or so—later in the form of cash back, merchandise, miles or hotel rooms. What's that discount worth? And who benefits?

Researchers at the Bank of Canada estimate that consumers who have only cash and debit cards in their wallets have a cost of paymentsOff-site link of $11 per month. Consumers who have these methods and also have credit cards gain about $48 per month in benefits. "The difference in results could be due to the cost of withdrawing cash or debit card or account fees while most credit cards may offer rewards," the researchers write.

Taking another angle, researchers at the Federal Reserve Banks of Boston and Kansas City and the Bank of Canada find that, in total, low-income consumers pay lessOff-site link in absolute terms to make payments compared to higher-income consumers. As a percentage of transaction amount, however, low-income consumers pay more, and the highest-income consumers pay the least. For this research, cost was the sum of rewards, the fees consumers pay to financial institutions, and the merchant cost passed through as higher prices at checkout.

The conversation about access to payment methods is often in the context of preserving access to cash or finding alternatives to cash. This research examines another aspect of payments access—that is, what it costs to make a payment depending on payment instrument choice or limitation.

For analysis of how consumers with different levels of card ownership make payments using data from the 2021 Diary of Consumer Payment Choice, see "Payment Card Adoption and Payment Choice," posted in the Atlanta Fed's Policy Hub in mid-July.

May 23, 2022

Vulnerable Populations and the Case for Cash

We recently wrote a post about communities not being able to access cash Adobe PDF file format because of natural or man-made disasters. Severe weather and war, for example, may leave a bank branch inoperable. But even in "normal" times, access to cash Adobe PDF file format remains an important consideration, especially for consumers who use it as their only or preferred means of payment. With this post, we look at how cash remains an important payment option and how accessing it may be becoming more difficult for certain vulnerable populations. These vulnerable populations—who tend to be low- to moderate-income households, rural communities, and recent immigrants—are more likely to be un- or underbanked (underserved) and often rely on cash to buy groceries and pay utility bills.

Even with an uptick in digital payment usage Adobe PDF file format, cash remains a critical payment choice for many Americans. Some may be unable to use digital payment options because they lack access to broadband or a smartphone, for example. Others may not be able to access these options because they are unbanked. Data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's 2019 report How America Banks reveal that approximately 5.4 percent of households Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link (7.1 million) were unbanked in 2019. Almost 14 percent of Black households are unbanked and presumably rely on cash or alternative payment options.

There are many reasons why cash can be a person's default method of acquiring goods and services, according to a forthcoming paper titled "Cash Is Alive: How Economists Explain Holding and Use of CashOff-site link" by Oz Shy, a senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed.

Unfortunately, recent data suggest that challenges to accessing cash existed prepandemic and accelerated during the pandemic. It may be especially difficult for the underserved, cash-reliant consumer, according to a report by the National Community Reinvestment CoalitionOff-site link:

  • The number of banking institutions declined from approximately 18,000 in 1984 to fewer than 5,000 in 2021.
  • The rate of bank branch closures doubled during the pandemic.

Rural areas tend to see the most bank branch closures, and those closures have contributed to a decline in ATMs as well. Adding to this, banks have been more cautious in providing accounts to independent ATM operators in part because of anti-money-laundering concernsOff-site link. So some banks are adopting policies that prohibit business relationships with independent ATM operators or are charging much higher fees for their services—which means some ATM accounts with banks are closing and fewer ATMs are being established.

These closures matter, even to the unbanked consumer, who may need bank branches and ATMs, for example, to obtain cash from a prepaid benefits card for unemployment or social security payments, get a cash advance on a credit card, or cash a check at a bank where the check writer has an account.

As the digital economy expands, people in underserved communities and those who are cash reliant, whether by choice or lack of other options, are at risk for being further marginalized in the financial system. To help ensure that everyone, regardless of payments preferences, is included in this system, cash access and preservation in underserved communities across the nation remain important to maintain.

March 28, 2022

Abigail Adams: "Remember the Ladies"

Women's History Month (WHM) reminds us of how far women have come and how far we still must go in terms of financial equity, education, and inclusion. While women today manage about 80 percentOff-site link of the finances in the householdOff-site link, they lag behindOff-site link in making investing decisions often because of being more cautious than men.

One woman who broke through many of these barriers is Abigail Smith Adams (Nov. 22, 1744—Oct. 28, 1818), one of our country's founding mothers. Many people know of Abigail through her roles as the wife of our second president, John Adams, and the mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. She was also the first First Lady to live in the White House.

But there is quite a bit more to Abigail. In colonial times, married women were considered their husband's property. Women could not own or purchase real property, manage money, pursue a formal education, nor have a voice in political matters. Married to John Adams at the age of 19, and self-educated, she bore six children, with four surviving to adulthood. While John Adams was away in France, the Netherlands, and England from 1778 to 1788, he left Abigail behind (except for when she joined him in Paris and London for several years) to manage finances for the household even though women by law could not.

Abigail invested her family's money in government securities (stocks and bonds)—a decision that ultimately made them wealthy, according to Woody Holton's biographyOff-site link. Abigail defied societal norms in other ways. She used "money which I call mine" to contribute to their wealth (even though it was considered the husband's property), valued independence and freedom, opposed slavery, and advocated for women's education. She was a trusted adviser to her husband, and her strong influence led others to refer to her as "Mrs. PresidentOff-site link."

On March 31, 1776, Abigail wrote in her now famous letter to John Adams to "Remember the LadiesOff-site link:" when he was at the Continental Congress:

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Last year for WHM, I wrote about women's financial rights from the 1970s onward. Recent posts have noted the importance of inclusion in our nation's coins and currency, the barriers broken by women, such as Maya Angelou being the first African American woman on a US coin and Maggie Lena Walker being the first African American woman to found a bank for her community. Abigail is remembered for her advocacy for women and her financial savvy and is included on a US Mint series in the First Spouse $10 Gold CoinOff-site link, with "Remember the Ladies" on the face alongside her image.

As we remember the ladies for Women's History Month, we can acknowledge the most influential women in paymentsOff-site link for 2022 who are making a difference in financial equity and inclusion. Happy Women's History Month!