Pity the poor penny, the least beloved coin in America. There's another push on to get rid of it.
For the first time, the U.S. Mint has said pennies are costing more than 1 cent to make this year, thanks to higher metal prices. "The penny is going to disappear soon unless something changes in the economics of commodities," says Robert Hoge, an expert on North American coins at The American Numismatic Society.
That very idea of spending 1.2 cents to put 1 cent into play strikes many people as "faintly ridiculous," says Jeff Gore, of Elkton, Md., founder of a little group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny.
The idea of a penniless society began to gain currency in 1989 with a bill in Congress to round off purchases to the nearest nickel. It was dropped, but the General Accounting Office in a 1996 report unceremoniously acknowledged that some people consider the penny a "nuisance coin."
In 2002, Gallup polling found that 58 percent of Americans stash pennies in piggy banks, jars, drawers and the like, instead of spending them like other coins. Some people eventually redeem them at banks or coin-counting machines, but 2 percent admit to just plain throwing pennies out!
"Today it's a joke. It's outlived its usefulness," says Tony Terranova, a New York City coin dealer who paid $437,000 for a 1792 penny prototype in what is believed to be the denomination's highest auction price.
Another problem: deciding what to make the penny from. Copper, bronze and zinc have been used, even steel in 1943 when copper was desperately needed for the World War II effort. In 1982, zinc replaced most of the penny's copper to save money, but rising zinc prices are now bedeviling the penny again.
"I'm very surprised they haven't gone to plastic," muses Bill Johnson, a wheat-penny collector who owns the Plimoth Candy Co. (It uses an old spelling of Plymouth.)
The penny took on the profile of President Lincoln, beloved as the Union's savior during the Civil War, on the centennial of his birth in 1909. The first ones carried ears of wheat on the tails side, but the Lincoln memorial has replaced those. Four new tails designs with themes from Lincoln's life are planned for 2009, with a fifth permanent one afterward to summarize his legacy.
This redesign, the first major one since 1959, has heartened penny lovers.
Those who want to keep the penny coin include small merchants who prefer cash transactions, contractors who help supply pennies, and consumer advocates who fear rounding up of purchases.
"We think the penny is important as a hedge to inflation," says director Mark Weller of Americans for Common Cents. "Any time you have more accurate pricing, consumers benefit."
I tend to agree about the rounding up. What do you think all those $X.99 prices will become in the absence of the penny? Not that this makes a huge difference at the micro level, but it's still a price increase.
Another good argument for the penny:
Scores of charities esteem the penny, which many Americans donate without a second thought. Like shouts in a playground, pennies can multiply quickly.
"People don't like carrying them around, so we dump them into the nearest bowl," says Teddy Gross, who founded the Penny Harvest charity drive in New York City schools. "By the end of any given year, most Americans have got a stash of capital which is practically useless, but it's within easy reach of a young person."
Last year, his children raked in 55 million pennies, which had to be redeemed with help from the Brink's security company. They also bagged about 200,000 spare nickels.
By the way, the Mint says nickels are also costing more to produce than they're worth. Pity the poor nickel?
Anyway. I'm happy to keep the penny around. Let's find a way to make it cost less to mint, and go from there.Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 03, 2006 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack