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Unlucky Penny?
By Gene Farinet

Editors Note:

Here in the digital age, the ubiquitous penny, so much a part of our lives, is still hanging in. It seems to exist on its own despite the new world of bits and pieces people now prefer. Here in On The Margins, our Gene Farinet gives us his unique take on the penny, its past, present and its possible future.

It ‘s no surprise to hear that Honest Abe is still on life support.

The Lincoln penny has been in ill health for some time, a victim of  inflated metal prices, and the expense of putting it into circulation.

Bogged down in the loss column, the venerable coin, at one time, produced a profit for the Treasury of about $40 million a year.

But it now costs 1.4 cents a penny, to make a penny.

Is the bell tolling?

Certainly this is not a “Top Ten” national issue, or even concern, but I find it a bit unsettling. After all, for more than two centuries, the respected penny has been a reassuring symbol that Americans were hesitant to forsake. A key part of our social and commercial history.

Like many others, I kind of laughed off the news 17 years ago when the idea of a penniless society first surfaced in Congress by rounding off all purchases to the nearest nickel. We said: you gotta be kidding.

Nor were any red flags raised when two special interest groups sprung up in the 1990’s, the pro-penny Americans for Common Cents. And on the other side of the coin, Citizens for Retiring the Penny..

In recent years, debate was pushed up a notch when a U.S. Congressman introduced legislation in 2001 to actually stop production of pennies.

To gauge by recent polls, public opinion is divided. According to Gallup, two-thirds of Americans want to keep the penny in circulation. A CNN poll, however, found only 38% supportive.

It’s had a long currency life, and been a coin collectors’ delight, with more than 300 billion pennies in a parade of 11 different designs since its 1787 pedigree.

One of its most glorious days was a modern auction at which 1792 prototype reportedly went for $437,000.

And then, there’s Ed Knowles, an Alabama service station owner, who saved pennies for 38 years, in canvas bags, jars and 55-gallon drums in his garage. With the help of an armored truck, he finally cashed in his four-and-a-half ton mother lode last fall.
For Ed, it made a lot of sense, $13, 084 dollars and 59 cents.

Not so long ago, yesteryear meant finding a “lucky penny” on the street, piggy banks, penny candy, a penny arcade, bubble gum machines, your weight, your fortune, one cent. It was oh so 1936…. in popular song:

“When you hear it thunder, Don’t run under a tree, There’ll be pennies from heaven for you and me.”

But at some point, fueled by prosperity, the “lucky penny”  began to take on tarnish. There were checks, then charge cards, and folks began to write off the penny as “annoying” fit only for jars or the bottom of drawers. Others got agitated fishing for pennies when making purchases. Pockets and coin purses were weighted down..

Checkout lines could be held up, while the cashier unwrapped new rolls.

Pretty soon, a penny on the sidewalk didn’t get a second look and people rarely stopped to look for a dropped penny once it rolled out of sight.
What happens now?

In 2009, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s image being placed on the penny, there’s proposed legislation to completely redesign it, as part of a presidential coin act passed last year. Keeping Lincoln, of course.

Still, to me, it’s a coin standing on edge, nobody can be sure which way it’s eventually going to fall.

After all, they say the sales tax was devised to prevent the penny from becoming obsolete.

Gene Farinet, an award winning veteran newsman, spent much of his long career at NBC News as a writer and producer working with Frank McGee, Ed Newman, John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw, covering space, politics and special projects everywhere in the world.



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