A look at social change
“Just mail me a check,” I told a young man who I was doing business with.
The 20-something paused and finally said, “I don’t have any checks. And I don’t have any envelopes or stamps.”
I was flummoxed.
This was no ordinary person. He’s an accomplished entrepreneur and a college graduate.
And he ran a small business.
But he didn’t have a checkbook?
How on earth can someone operate a household, yet alone a business, without a checkbook?
But many millennials simply pay with plastic. A debit or credit card more often than not will suffice. And they have apps like PayPal on their phones that allow them to pay in other ways without a pen.
My young friend ultimately dropped by his bank to have a half dozen checks printed. But before he filled one out, he watched a YouTube video showing him how.
When he shared that with me, I felt old. Really old.
For me, getting a checking account was a rite of passage. I grew up on a farm and when I was 11 years old, I opened an account so I had a mode of paying for the feed and supplies for the calves I was raising.
And writing checks was about responsibility.
I can remember my mother standing over me at the kitchen table as I worked to balance my checkbook. It was hard work – at least for an absentminded 11-year-old who kept forgetting to enter transactions into his check register. Mom knew all about this, she spent many hours every week balancing the books for our family’s business.
The Wall Street Journal reported Americans wrote 17.3 billion checks in 2015, according to a survey released by the Federal Reserve last month. That compares with the 41.9 billion checks written in 2000.
If the trend continues, someday the written check will go the way of the telegram.
Folks will scratch their heads and say, “We used to move money that way?”
Still there is something to be said for holding a check in your hands. I still remember my first paycheck as a journalist. I was a summer intern at the Galesburg Register-Mail when an editor walked by my desk, handed me a check and said “Congratulations.”
I assure you, $3.35 an hour never felt so good.
Checks also could give you a glimpse into other people’s lives. I remember a business near my hometown that would scotch tape copies of customers’ bad checks behind the counter for all the world to see.
And when I was a reporter at the Quad-City Times there was a clerk who would hold each person’s pay envelope up to the light to read the check within before distributing the checks to workers. (Most every reporter knew what everyone else was earning because of that chatty clerk.)
When folks tell me they don’t want to make the switch to electronic banking out of security concerns, I always think of that clerk holding checks up to the light.
Checks aren’t always secure either.
Still, checking has become a part of the American lexicon.
Just think about it: Bad check, rubber check, the check is in the mail.
We are raising a generation that will have no idea what these phrases mean.
Future students will ponder these words in Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech:
“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Will those future young scholars marvel at the great man’s eloquence or simply ask: “What’s a check?”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield, Ill., area and can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com. He visited Holly Springs last year conducting research for a book he is writing.