Is Now the Time to Pitch the Penny?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Unless you collect coins, you probably don't think too much about the penny. After all, it's not worth much, which is why one congressman plans to introduce legislation to abolish the coin.
NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.
TED ROBBINS reporting:
What do you do with your pennies? Dump them in a jar at home? Drop them in the little tray by the cash register? You know, take a penny, leave a penny?
(Soundbite of coins)
ROBBINS: Arizona Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe thinks pennies are a waste of, well, money.
Representative JIM KOLBE (Republican, Arizona): We're making four billion of these a year that have absolutely no use any longer, from an economic and a commercial standpoint.
ROBBINS: Actually, pennies do have one commercial use: for sales tax. And without them, transactions would be rounded up to the nearest nickel.
Mark Weller, of Americans for Common Cents - cents as in pennies - says that would hurt poor Americans.
Mr. MARK WELLER (Americans for Common Cents): People know that if you don't have the penny you round transactions, and that's a losing proposition for consumers.
ROBBINS: Kolbe says, in practice, even poor Americans already round to the nearest nickel, ignoring the penny.
Rep. KOLBE: They're just sitting on sidewalks because nobody wants to stoop over to pick one up.
(Soundbite of coins)
ROBBINS: Meanwhile, it costs more than a penny to make a penny. How's that? Well, this is going to sound backward, but the copper colored penny's main ingredient is zinc. The copper is just a coating.
The price of zinc has surged in recent years. It now costs about a penny and a half to make a penny. The alternative, the nickel, costs more than a nickel to make too, but at least a nickel buys something. Like six minute in a parking meter. The nickel's main ingredient is copper.
Told you it would sound backward. And copper prices have also surged. Guess which state leads the nation in copper production? Arizona, Kolbe's state.
His plan would result in more nickels, and more copper being used. Which is another reason Mark Weller opposes Kolbe's plan.
Mr. WELLER: We just believe this is special interest legislation at its worst.
ROBBINS: Kolbe says copper producers could care less about the amount used in pennies.
Rep. KOLBE: I don't think they're worrying too much about how much copper is being used by the mint when China will take every pound of copper that can possibly be produced in the United States and every other place at whatever the world market price is. And it's very nice, thank you.
ROBBINS: And we should tell you that Mark Weller's group, Americans for Common Cents, gets some of its funding from the folks who provide the penny's main ingredient. Yup. Zinc producers.
Mr. WELLER: We have a broad-based coalition that's made up of coin and numismatic organizations, charitable groups, and companies that are involved in the production of the penny. And we've been upfront abut that.
ROBBINS: Weller says the charitable organizations would lose if the penny is abolished because they raise money collecting pennies in donation boxes. He also points out that some mint workers could lose their jobs if the penny goes away. The mint spends about two-thirds of its production time making pennies.
But the main reason Americans for Common Cents wants to keep the penny? Mark Weller says its own polls show people like it.
Mr. WELLER: We have consistently seen two-thirds to three-fourths of the Americans that have indicated they want to continue the penny.
ROBBINS: We did our own unscientific poll outside a credit union in Tucson. We got the opposite results.
Mr. MARCO IOANE(ph) (Arizona Resident): I could do without pennies.
Ms. FLO SHIPPEY(ph) (Arizona Resident): Pennies just get tossed in the corner, seems like all the time.
Mr. JACOB SCHULL(ph) (Arizona Resident): Pennies, just make it a round number, five cents, ten cents.
ROBBINS: Marco Ioane, Flo Shippey, and Jacob Schull don't like the penny. But Alice Procknow(ph) does.
Ms. ALICE PROCKNOW (Arizona Resident): I wouldn't be able to play penny poker. I have a camping group, we play penny poker. It's a lot cheaper than playing with dollars or dimes.
ROBBINS: Or nickels.
Jim Kolbe has been pushing to modernize currency for many years. He wanted the dollar coin to replace the dollar bill. Not a roaring success.
Since he's retiring from Congress after this term, he'll have to find someone else to carry on his mission.
Rep. KOLBE: I'm not sure we'll have time to get it through this year, but I guarantee this is something whose time has definitely come.
ROBBINS: If not, there's another way to bring down the cost of making pennies and nickels. Use cheaper metals. Of course, that still won't take care of the problem of what to do with all those pennies in that jar.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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