Cash Deserts and Cash Swamps

From the Series: Europe in the Balance

Since the savings bank revolution of the nineteenth century, Swedes have associated banks with access and storage of hard cash. How shocking, then, to discover that, as of 2016, 60 percent of Swedish banks were entirely cashless (Dillén et al. 2018, 77). What has long been seen as a basic right—access to cash—has quite suddenly evaporated in Sweden. For many, this evaporation has felt like a liberation: A liberation from tiresome adding, subtracting, and counting; a liberation from wallets overstuffed with paper money and paper receipts; a liberation from cash’s age-old siren song, reminding people to carry it wherever they went; even a liberation from the fear of robbery. As a result of all this liberatory promise, many Swedes have offered up virtually no resistance as cash has disappeared from daily life.

But, as with all supposedly liberating transformations, someone is being left behind. In the case of the cashless revolution in Sweden, the two groups brought together in their newfound outsidership—the rural population and the immigrant community—are often considered to be at odds across a range of other political and social debates. In this instance, however, a report jointly issued by Sweden’s county councils bluntly warns of these groups’ looming “digital exclusion” resulting from the nationwide transition to cashlessness (Ehrenberg and Jansson 2017, 13). Because of the rapidity of this transition, these two groups, and the government that is supposed to represent them, are only now beginning to contend with this dramatic change and to consider their responses to it.

During centuries of nation-building, Sweden had long been dedicated to colonizing its rural, northern hinterlands. It did so, in part, by making it cheaper to consider living there, whether that took the form of land subsidies, building up infrastructure such as universities and roads, military expenditure, and suchlike. But by the 1960s and 1970s, a concept known as glesbygdspolitik emerged. Translated roughly as “rural area policy,” it referred to the national program to ensure that Sweden’s enormous rural districts were not “left behind” during the drive toward modernization (see Gustafsson 1972, 56). But, as a parliamentarian from Sweden’s Left Party informed me, “much of Sweden’s rural policy work has disappeared with EU entry. . . . The [central] state has, from a historical perspective, abdicated [its glesbygdspolitik] from around 1995 and forward.” In a strange convergence of seemingly unrelated events, the Swedish Central Bank (Riksbank) offloaded the costs of moving and storing cash around the country to private industry at around the same time as the country joined the European Union.

As a result of these two convergent changes, what we can now christen “cash deserts” have begun to emerge in Sweden’s glesbygd. A recent report from the Riksbank sounds the alarm that banking facilities—and the cash movement and storage they facilitated—are disappearing altogether from the countryside. In all of Sweden’s gigantic “inner Norrland” district, only three ATMs take deposits, and all three are located in downtown Östersund. As a result, people must now travel vast distances to access standard cash services (Dillén et al. 2018, 77–78). Rural districts are also fast becoming older districts; politicians are concerned about this growing elderly population, which often no longer drives, but also does not have the knowledge base to move into the world of electronic banking and to abandon its lifelong familiarity with cash. The county council report also notes that the crucial panoply of nonprofit community organizations are newly struggling, since the fees related to cashlessness cut into their already tight bottom lines. Combining these fees with the lack of banking facilities means that they must now take on the costs of storing, transporting, and protecting cash themselves (Ehrenberg and Jansson 2017, 19–20).

Meanwhile, immigrant neighborhoods are also feeling the squeeze of cashlessness, but as “cash swamps.” Cash remains rife here but carries a taint of poverty and illegality as compared to the higher grounds of cashlessness that surround it. At one vibrant cafe in an immigrant neighborhood in Stockholm, the owner explained to me that he could never charge the necessary increase to cover the hidden bank fees of cashlessness. With a tad of derision in his voice, he explained that the card fees are flat rather than percentage based, so while the overpriced cafes in more upscale parts of town can afford cashless transactions, he cannot. Another man described how large cash deposits to the bank must now be accompanied by receipts that justify each krona over 10,000 (and often require an appointment in advance). Sweden’s most recent immigrants are even more dramatically excluded by the sudden disappearance of cash. Until they have been cleared by the authorities for full residency, they lack the paperwork to open up a bank account. But without a bank account, they have no access to the cashless economy (Ehrenberg and Jansson 2017, 16–17). Finally, the central town square of this particular neighborhood boasts three prominent money wiring and foreign exchange agencies, which are notorious zones of petty money laundering, but also very important for honest remittances abroad. Clearly, cash is still king here, but only because the inhabitants feel excluded from the cashless revolution by way of the many barriers to joining it.

The cashless revolution teaches us that, like any other good, cash costs money to store, transport, and protect. And thus, reliably and consistently guaranteeing marginalized groups access to hard, paper money costs . . . money. For most of the “modern era,” governments have treated national cash as a classic public good, in need of support. But now, the assembled county councils of Sweden point out that “cash infrastructure is fragile due to the diminished flow of cash” (Ehrenberg and Jansson 2017, 9), akin to a public road gradually going to seed if people stop driving on it. As the state retreats from yet another public good that people had taken for granted—its cash—private players have been rushing in, but predictably, only in places where there’s more cash to be made.


Dillén, Mats, Janine Alm Ericson, Dennis Dioukarev, Jonas Jacobsson Gjörtler, Johan Lönnroth, Fredrik Olovsson, Bosse Ringholm et al. 2018. Tryggad tillgång till kontanter: Delbetänkande av Riksbankskommittén. Statens Offentliga Utredningar (SOU) 2018:42. Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedts Juridik.

Ehrenberg, Sara, and Johanna Jansson. 2017. Bevakning av grundläggande betaltjänster. Länsstyrelsen Rapport: 13.

Gustafsson, Hans. 1972. Glesbygder och glesbygdspolitik: Betänkande avgivet av glesbygdsutredningen. Statens Offentliga Utredningar (SOU) 1972:56. Stockholm, Sweden: KL Beckmans Tryckerier.