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Published:July 6th, 2006 10:13 EST
Cents-Less To Keep The Penny?

Cents-Less To Keep The Penny?

By Maria Grella

The saying, "see a penny, pick it up, all day long, you’ll have good luck" is soon becoming a thing of the past.  Have people become too lazy to bend over and snatch up the one cent?  They’re certainly not hard to find.  Pennies are ubiquitous; found everywhere from sidewalks to cars, to playgrounds and floors of department stores.  If you look within the crevices of your furniture you’d probably find one right now.  Stashed away in jars, and over a long period of time, one could collect quite a fortune in coins…however small.  Yet, some have confessed to throwing them away!  Why is the penny, a form of American currency, treated with such disregard?

One reason could be the perceived useless-ness of the copper coin.  The value is so miniscule that it’s not practical to carry them around when making purchases.  The United States has had a history of producing coins less than their value paid by banks, making it a profit for the government.  But, according to the U.S. Mint, the penny is a lot more trouble than it’s worth today.  Due to higher metal prices, the penny costs more to make, at 1.2 cents, than its monetary value, of only 1 cent.  Could this mean the end of the road for Abe Lincoln’s coin? 

It’s common sense that spending more to get less is imprudent.  For this alone, the argument could be made to assassinate production of the penny.  But polls have indicated that the majority of Americans won’t hear of losing the cent.  There are even organizations that have formed, like Americans for Common Cents, who have petitioned and spread the cause to save the penny.
It’s been such a part of American history, yet there is action being put forth to phase out U.S.’s smallest currency.  Jim Kolbe, U.S. Rep. of Arizona, had Congress reject his idea to abolish the penny, but intends to pursue it again later this year.  The exile of the coin began in 1989 when another failed bill in Congress sought to round off purchases to the nearest nickel.  

A 1996 report by the General Accounting Office found that many people consider the penny a "nuisance coin."  It’s often perceived as annoying to get pennies in change when making purchases.  Still, a Gallup poll taken in 2002 found that 58 percent of American citizens hoard the Lincoln head in jars, ashtrays and piggy banks, instead of spending them.  While a few may turn them in for manageable money at banks or coin machines, a shameful 2 percent simply toss them in the trash.

Advocates for the penny include small merchants who favor cash transactions, contractors who supply pennies, and consumer groups that fear inflation.  It benefits consumers by keeping prices accurate, rather than rounding up.  Also strong supporters of the copper piece are charities.  Many don’t consider them on par as bigger coins or paper money, so they donate them without thought.  Recently, Virgin Mobile USA launched a ‘save the penny’ campaign, where its penny truck will travel across the country collecting the unwanted coins, and distributing them to various charities.  Gathered by children and adults, penny drives can lead to big time cash-ins.

The copper coin is barely made of copper anymore.  Bronze and zinc have been incorporated in the creation of the penny.  During the copper shortage of 1943’s World War II, steel was even used.  By 1982, zinc had replaced the bulk of the penny to save money.  Unfortunately, zinc prices are now increasing, giving cause for concern.

The penny has been manufactured every year, with the exception of 1815, when the U.S. had depleted its British-made penny blanks after the War of 1812.  One hundred years after his birth, in 1909, President Lincoln’s profile was embossed on the cent, in recognition of his work during the Civil War.  While the Lincoln memorial is on the underside, it used to be ears of wheat.  Four new tail designs are in the works for his bicentennial in 2009, with the fifth one to replace the memorial.  This redesign, the first since 1959, is hoping to continue Lincoln’s legacy and perhaps breathe new life into the penny.