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Why It's Time to Retire The Penny

On its 100th birthday, the penny is America's most unloved coin

By Clyde Haberman

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

Not a chance, my neighborhood news dealer said. He's a friendly guy, but no way was he about to count the 75 pennies offered as payment for two newspapers. And the woman at the bakery was absolute about not accepting 215 pennies for a danish.

Who could blame them?

My penny antics were not meant seriously. They were intended to test reactions to a legitimate, if unusual, method of payment. It confirmed what most people would have already guessed: No American coin is as unloved as the humble penny.

Many reject it as change, tossing it instead into the tip baskets that sit on many store counters. Few stoop to pick up a penny on the sidewalk.

Most Americans would just as soon see it disappear, with business transactions rounded to the nearest nickel. A few European countries have blazed the trail, abolishing their smallest coins as a waste.

Nothing like that is about to happen in this country, certainly not as we enter the 100th year of the one-cent piece bearing Abraham Lincoln's profile. Next February 12 is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln penny. The U.S. Mint plans to issue four new designs for the penny's reverse side, each representing a different phase of Lincoln's life.

So the penny will stick around. The question is how to make it affordable. Sharply rising world prices in recent years for its components, zinc and copper, have made it a money loser. The same holds for the five-cent coin, made of copper and nickel.

Last year, it cost the Mint 1.67 cents to make each of the roughly 8 billion pennies it churned out. And that means taxpayers paid more than $130 million for coins valued at only $80 million. Looked at another way, even your opinions have become more expensive: It now costs about 3 cents to put in your 2 cents.

The finances of the nickel are even grimmer. Each 5-cent piece cost 9.5 cents to make last year. So more than $120 million was spent to produce about $65 million worth of that coin.

These losses cannot be sustained, says Edmund C. Moy, the Mint's director.

Moy wants Congress to give his agency more flexibility to "determine the metal content of the coins at any given time," depending on shifting world commodity prices.

Beth Deisher is the editor of Coin World, a magazine for collectors that believes the penny's demise is long overdue. With the 100th anniversary in sight, Deisher says, "We think it would be a good idea to bring the Lincoln cent to a close."

"Name the things you can buy for a penny," she says.

Except for thoughts, not a single thing.