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Free drinks, store credit and cries for help: How we're handling the coin shortage

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The Mint has urged people to start spending their coins, deposit them at banks or take them to a coin redemption kiosk. "The coin supply problem can be solved with each of us doing our part," it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a number of retailers have shied away from accepting cash payments because they can't make change.

But card payments are largely not an option for the millions of people in the U.S. who don't have bank accounts.

In 2017, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 6.5% of U.S. households were unbanked. That means 8.4 million U.S. households -- home to 14.1 million adults and 6.4 million children -- didn't have a checking or savings account.

"Lower-income consumers tend to transact more in cash," said Adrienne Harris, professor of the practice at the University of Michigan and former special assistant to President Obama for economic policy. "It makes things harder for low-income consumers to get the very basic things they need."

Even before the coin shortage, some businesses wary of handling cash during the coronavirus era were asking customers to use only card or contactless payment methods. That renewed debate over the merits and disadvantages of a so-called cashless society.

 

Businesses with a lot of cash on their premises have higher insurance rates and must also make arrangements to deposit the money. But going cashless puts a swath of the population without bank accounts at an extreme disadvantage.

"If you strictly become a no-cash operation, then you begin to marginalize those people in the community because they just don't have the same access to the instruments that everyone else has access to," said Shelle Santana, assistant professor of marketing at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

The implications of the current coin shortage are similar to those of a cashless business but exacerbated because the shortage affects so many retailers.

"It's a difference of degree, but a dramatic one," Harris said.

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