The panhandler’s lament: In an increasingly cashless world, fewer have a dime to spare
By Maia Silber
Aug 6 2017
John Sullivan wears a giant foam hat in the shape of a whale. It works well as a conversation starter when he panhandles on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown. But one hot afternoon in July, no one stops to ask Sullivan about the whale. And no one stops to drop a dollar in his pink plastic cup.
Passing by, one young man in sunglasses turns and shrugs. “I don’t have any cash,” he says apologetically.
That’s a refrain Sullivan has heard a lot lately. He has panhandled in the same spot for almost 20 years and has a good rapport with the locals, who call him “the whale man.” But in the past three years or so, more and more pedestrians have been telling him that they no longer carry paper bills or loose change.
Sullivan’s good-natured about it: “I’ll see you next time,” he says with a smile if a passerby claims to have nothing but a credit card. Lots of people actually do come back the next day with change, he says — but still, he takes in only half what he once did.
Orlando Chase, who panhandles on the same corner as Sullivan, isn’t quite as patient as his friend. “They say they got credit cards,” he scoffs. “I gotta eat. I can’t eat with their credit cards. That’s a done deal.”
A decade ago, you probably wouldn’t have thought to go out without at least a crumpled $5 or $10 bill in your pocket. Nowadays, though, you can use credit cards just about anywhere — and a growing number of smartphone apps are letting us swap clumsy cash for simple swipes when paying a cabdriver, tipping a delivery guy or even splitting a tab with a friend.
It’s all very efficient. But for panhandlers and street vendors, all that efficiency just translates into a whole lot less generosity.
Within the next five to 10 years, the United States could become a “less-cash” or “cash-light” society. That’s the prediction of Harvard economist Kenneth S. Rogoff, who envisions a day when physical currency will be phased out of most legal transactions. A recent survey by Ipsos found that 38 percent of U.S. respondents would ditch cash completely if they could, while 34 percent report that they already rarely carry it.
For panhandlers, who rely entirely on the real stuff, that means less income, period. In Franklin Square downtown, Carrie Evans hits up passersby for a little change. She gets meals at a women’s shelter, but panhandling brings in the money she might need for a bus fare, or a bottle of water. “A lot of people say they don’t have cash,” she says. “Everybody carries plastic.”
Back in Georgetown, at the corner of 27th and K streets, Nathaniel Bost gets the same song and dance. “They say, ‘I got a card,’ ” Bost says. “I say I need cash. They say, ‘Can’t do it.’ ”
In his book “The Curse of Cash,” Rogoff suggests that a cashless society could provide heavily subsidized debit-card accounts and perhaps smartphones to low-income individuals. He notes that in Sweden, where less than a fifth of transactions are conducted with cash, some panhandlers already accept donations via mobile phones.
But it’s hard to imagine some veterans of Washington’s streets adjusting to such a system, which would require a bank account and a Square credit-card processor, not to mention time, Internet access, and technological savvy. Chase is 60 years old and has panhandled with a plastic cup for years: He had never heard of Square.
As for Sullivan, the “whale man” wouldn’t deploy his smartphone in the course of panhandling. “If you got a phone, people think, how can a homeless person have that?” he says. “They think differently of you.”