On the bright side, those who do engage in credit-card giving are likely to fork over more, since they won’t be limited by the amount of money in their pocket. And while this will be no consolation to charities such as the Salvation Army that depend heavily on coins, their loss might be other causes’ gain. Online giving has been rising steadily, and electronic transactions have made it easier for charities to collect a buck or two from customers in grocery-store checkout lines rather than outside in the parking lot.
But what about people who depend on spontaneous giving? A bureaucracy such as New York’s MTA might be able to work out a convenient electronic payment system for its authorized buskers. Informal street performers and panhandlers, though, will have a harder time. Square readers aren’t expensive—in fact, the company gives them away to those who sign up for an account—but for now they have to be attached to a mobile phone, which does cost money. It’s one thing for a juggler to pass his hat after a performance; passing around an iPhone would require another level of trust.
And while many homeless people have cellphones these days, holding them out to passersby for credit-card transactions might undermine their message of need. Denver and other cities have installed converted parking meters near panhandling hotspots, asking people to give to city-sponsored homelessness charities rather than directly to the needy. Backers of the meters say they benefit the homeless more than direct donations, because the money goes to job training and housing that individuals couldn’t otherwise afford. In theory, the same model could work for electronic donations.
The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work very well. Denver’s meters brought in about $30,000 in coins in each of the first few years, but donations have slid since, and similar programs in other cities have petered out. That bears out the theory that people are less likely to give when they’re not face-to-face with a suffering individual. “There’s no heartstring attached to putting money in a meter,” says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Cashlessness won’t necessarily leave the homeless out in the cold. People could still give them actual goods, or vouchers for free meals (an idea that was briefly popular in the early 1990s). Donovan notes that many homeless people already treat some donated items as if they’re currency, accumulating and trading them for things they need more. But for those most urgently in need, there may be no substitute for good old-fashioned money. Coats aren’t like coins—people don’t often walk around with extra winter clothing they’re desperate to get rid of.
I asked a panhandler outside my local grocery what he’d do if people no longer carried loose change. “That’s a good question,” he said, and pondered a moment. “I guess I’d have to ask them to go in and buy me a little food.” Not a bad idea, I agreed, and handed him some coins for his trouble.