Monday, February 06, 2012

On Quarters, Coin-Operated Laundry, and Inequity

When I was a kid, and my friend and I would go to play video games, getting quarters with which to play was a minor challenge. Usually, the question was far more one of whether we had any money at all rather than one of making change, because at most venues where video games could be found, there were convenient change machines standing ready to convert our dollar bills into quarters we could pump into the games.

These days, I really don't play coin-operated video games anymore, but my need for quarters still exists. Only nowadays, I need quarters for a far more basic need: to do my laundry using the coin-operated units in my apartment complex. But getting quarters nowadays is much more of a challenge than it was back then:
  • Video arcades certainly aren't much of an option these days. Not only is the video game arcade almost extinct, but the few places that do still exist tend to convert money into tokens rather than quarters (the better to ensure that the arcade can keep all that money!).
  • Since ATMs don't dispense quarters, getting quarters from one's bank requires actually going to a teller during regular banking hours. Not only are these hours often too restrictive to work into one's schedule if you have a full-time job, but banks are increasingly discouraging customers from using their human employees for business by creating rules on accounts charging fees (or otherwise withdrawing incentives) unless the customer limits their bank interactions to using ATMs or going online.
  • Laundromats often still have machines that change paper currency to quarters, but most have signs intended to intimidate people from using them unless the quarters are to be used on their machines. And, increasingly, these machines actually charge to perform the conversion (say, if you give the machine $5, you'll only get $4.75 in quarters back).
Coin-operated laundry is one reason I tend to get indignant when people claim that those who are either poor or have limited funds are in such predicaments because they're too lazy. There is nothing convenient about coin-operated laundry! Who really wants to haul their dirty clothes to a shared facility on the opposite side of the building, or worse, in a different part of town, where not only neighbors but total strangers are washing their unmentionables in the same machines you're hoping to use? And there's also the matter of competition for the limited number of machines available. In my own apartment building, there are four washers and four dryers (and one of the dryers is out of order!). In a complex that houses more than 40 residential units, it's hardly a surprise that I often have to make several trips downstairs (where the laundry room is, in relation to my apartment) just to find one of the machines that I need available for my use.

Anyone who can afford (or, in the case of many renters, is allowed) to get their own laundry equipment almost certainly does so, rather than put up with the struggles connected to using coin-operated machines. And, of course, this is just another way in which those who have less money ultimately have to pay more to utilize an already-tedious situation than those who have more money to start with, as it costs a lot less money to do laundry within one's home. Sure, there are electrical and water bills, and occasional repairs to be made, but those are more than covered by the quarters pumped into the machines at our apartments and laundromats. And, of course, having one's own machine gives more control over what type of machine is used, and by getting an energy-efficient machine, one can save even more money!

As I indicated earlier, whether due to rental agreements, or current lack of funds, or whatever, getting our own laundry machines isn't an option for many. If we're going to be stuck with this situation, the least our landlords could do is provide convenient access to quarters on-site!

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