pennies

Pity the penny.

America’s 1-cent piece may go bye-bye before long. A growing chorus of economic experts and a general sense that we are evolving into a “cashless society” are building the case for elimination of our smallest item of currency.

I personally wouldn’t bet a penny, let alone serious money, that the little copper-colored coin (it actually is only 2.5 percent copper) will outlive me.

The debate between the penny’s friends and foes has percolated for years in the halls of Congress. Attempts at elimination failed in 1990, 2001, 2006 and 2017, the latter effort championed by the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.

But the COVID-19 pandemic revived the issue when the U.S. Mint dialed back penny production and all of a sudden there was a national coin shortage.

The Mint turned the spigot back on last summer, however, and in its latest annual report it boasted the highest coin production (19.8 billion) in almost 20 years. The Mint typically churns out more 1-cent coins than all the other denominations combined.

Lobbyists are passionate on both sides of the argument.

The leader of the pro-penny cause is Americans for Common Cents, founded in 1990 and partially funded by Jarden Zinc Products, the company that supplies the zinc “blanks” that constitute 97.5 percent of each penny. ACC has done multiple surveys of the American public indicating strong majorities favor continued penny production.

Among the groups on the other side are the Coin Coalition, an alliance of vending-machine and soft-drink manufacturers who don’t like pennies fouling up paper-bill validators; and Citizens to Retire the Penny, which calls itself “a common-sense, nonpartisan coalition of individuals, businesses and political leaders who understand that eliminating the penny from circulation could save the U.S. government close to $85 million annually.”

Some would argue the rest of the world is way ahead of us on this. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Africa, not to mention many less-developed countries, ditched their 1-cent coins (or equivalents) as far back as 1987.

Here in America, this has crystalized into the classic “tradition vs. progress” debate. Both sides can cite economic and survey data, although from a purely practical standpoint the 1-cent piece truly isn’t worth it, not when it costs 2 cents to make.

As a lover of history, however, I prefer to see this through the lens of both patriotism and personal experience. That really registered with me a few weeks ago.

I was depositing checks at a bank ATM and waiting for my receipt to spit out of the machine. I looked down and there between my feet was a gleaming, 2020-issue penny. The famous Abraham Lincoln profile looked up at me, as if Abe was asking, “Why am I lying here on this dirty concrete?”

I flipped the coin over and examined the shield topped by the banner reading, “E Pluribus Unum,” or, “out of many, one.” The shield had 13 stripes, the same as the U.S. flag, representing the 13 original states of the union. But the Latin inscription stood out. Thanks in no small part to our 16th president, we are still one nation, under God – as we are reminded by the coin’s inscription on the Lincoln side, “In God We Trust.”

Not to be overlooked, either, is the word floating above Abe’s right shoulder: “Liberty.”

That’s a ton of meaning in a tiny metal disc. Our money, especially in its most humble denomination, represents the values we hold dear as Americans.

I thought about all that and was glad I picked up that coin, which another bank customer had carelessly let fall to the pavement.

I had a brief period in my adolescence when I collected pennies in those blue collector’s books with the round slots. The attraction wore off and I think I just pulled out the coins and put them in my pocket.

Much later in life, I got back into it when the U.S. Mint issued the 50-state quarters collection. Between 1999 and 2008, I patiently filled out the whole set from my daily coin handling. I recently hauled out the collection and showed it off to two of my grandsons, who seemed appropriately impressed.

So go ahead and get ready for the coming demise of cash and the supposed cryptocurrency revolution. (Are you as befuddled by bitcoin as I am?) The penny perseveres. I have a full jar of them awaiting a trip to the bank and the delightful dump into the coin-counting machine, where I get the payoff for this form of thrift.

It’s still true, as Ben Franklin famously said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

Remember all of this the next time you pass up that worthless little coin on the sidewalk.

A penny for your thoughts, anyone?

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