ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For years now, groups like the national Coin Coalition have lobbied Congress to ditch the penny.
And they’re not alone.
The Citizens Against Public Waste argues that suspending production of the penny would save taxpayers $1 billion over the next decade. The National Association of Convenience Stores claims that pennies extend transactions by up to two hours a year for those of us who use them.
When I told a friend about the war against the penny, he asked: “How will the boss pay me?”
I would argue that pennies perform a valuable function in society. Where can you find a cheaper bribe for a child? More importantly, pennies provide a thrifty history lesson when you interest a youngster in collecting.
The U.S. penny — or cent piece — was introduced in 1793. Lady Liberty graced its face until 1859 when the so-called Indian head coin was minted. Then, to honor his 100th birthday in 1909, Honest Abe took his place on the cover – and his seat on the back of the coin.
Throughout most of its life, copper has been the primary ingredient in pennies. It is said George Washington donated an “excellent copper teapot” to add to the bullion mix for the country’s first batch of cents and half-cents.
The coin’s greatest moment came during World War II. Concerned with a national shortage of copper to help our war effort, the U.S. Treasury changed the coin’s makeup to zinc-coated steel in 1943. These steel pennies did more than preserve a valuable resource. They reminded everyone — through every purchase — that there was a war on. Try doing that with mailers.
In 1982, the U.S. Mint changed the primary composition of the penny from copper to zinc.
Since then, the furor against the penny has grown.
“Today, if it rained pennies from heaven, only a fool would turn his umbrella upside down!” Princeton economist Alan S. Blinder commented as far back as 30 years ago.
The U.S. Mint produces anywhere from 2 billion to 8 billion pennies a year. The government estimates there are about 400 billion pennies in circulation. About 6 billion are lost each year.
Where do they go?
They go into seat cushions and wishing wells.
They are flattened on railroad tracks, tucked behind fuses and pitched to the lions at the zoo.
Imagine a world without the penny.
Sales taxes would climb to the nearest nickel. Gas prices would end in a zero. And, in a world already devoid of good notions, the price of a thought would quintuple.
It’s not worth much, but a penny pays its way.
Without complaint, pennies hold down the cost of the millions of trivial things we’d resent buying for an extra nickel. They fill your kids’ piggy banks, repurpose mason jars and make possible a friendly game of poker.
That’s why five pennies will never equal a nickel. Five pennies are, in fact, priceless.