In late 2011, a video trended on YouTube which re-addressed the question of whether or not the U.S. penny should be discontinued. While it wasn’t the first or the last time the topic has been addressed, it was an early viral social media video on a subject that seems to come up every year. Although a few bills have been introduced to Congress over the years seeking to drop the penny from our currency lineup, all have failed.
Death To Pennies?
The argument to dump the penny is a compelling one which has been made both eloquently and angrily, as evidenced in this legendary 2004 rant by William Safire in the New York Times or by blogger Michael Barone, who calls for an Executive Order that would allow merchants to refuse pennies. There are even entire websites dedicated to the penny’s retirement.
With the value of a penny less than the cost to make it, one would think it should only be a matter of time before the penny fades into numismatic history, but support for the penny has been surprisingly strong.
Critics, however, are quite vocal in their desire to see the penny retire. In 2010, best-selling author John Green was quoted as saying, “If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would say: ‘Why is my face on a coin that is worth 1/26 of what a penny was worth when I was President?'”
In 2006, USA Today published an article stating that the U.S. Penny costs more to make than its face value, and in 2014 the Washington Post noted that a penny cost 1.8 cents to make – which was actually down from 2.4 cents three years earlier.
President Barack Obama, speaking as a Senator in 2008 stated, “We have been trying to eliminate the penny for quite some time — it always comes back,” Obama said. “I need to find out who is lobbying to keep the penny…I will seriously consider eliminating the penny as long as we find another place for Lincoln to land.”
Six year later – halfway through Obama’s second term – an administration official was asked about the penny in 2014 and stated that “no conclusions have been made and we are doing research in fiscal year 2015.”
It should be noted that abolishing the penny is not a unique argument to the US. Other countries, such as Canada, have also engaged in such debates. The penny has already been retired in such countries as New Zealand (1987), Australia (1991), and Canada (2012).
Watch the “Death to Pennies” video which went viral in late 2011 and has over 3 million views to date.
There are, of course, those who are perfectly happy to keep the penny. A poll in early 2014 found that 34% of Americans wanted to abolish the penny, while 51% wanted to keep it. A pro-penny site, pennies.org, argues that the penny “fuels charitable causes” and its elimination “would increase spending for many federal government programs, causing inflationary pressures, and it wouldn’t save money.”
In response to the charity argument, MIT professor Jeff Gore, who is firmly in the anti-penny camp said, “…such charities can move toward collecting nickels instead of pennies, and it’s not obvious to me they’re going to get fewer than one-fifth as many nickels than they currently get pennies because frankly the pennies just don’t add up to a whole lot.”
A 2015 article by Amy Livingston at Money Crashers presented what she believed were the strongest arguments for and against the penny. Reasons to retire the penny included the worth (“there’s literally nothing you can buy with a single penny,” she wrote), time wasted at the register, a negative effect on the environment, and the fact that they actually cost money to make. Her reasons to keep the penny include keeping prices low (as opposed to rounding up cash transactions), their continued use by charities, the honor of Abe Lincoln, and people generally like them.
2013 Obama Hangout
In a 2013 hangout, President Obama was asked why the penny had not et been retired, to which he replied, “I don’t know… I think people get attached emotionally to the way things have been.” The President noted that it wouldn’t be a “huge savings for government, but anytime we’re spending more money on something that people don’t actually use, that’s an example of something we should probably change.”
He concluded that the issue itself may be simply a matter of finding the time to address it. “The penny is an example of something I need legislation for and frankly given all the big issues that we have to deal with day in and day out, a lot of times it just doesn’t… we’re not able to get to it.”
It doesn’t appear that the penny debate will end anytime soon, nor does it seem that the penny is in any danger of going anywhere in the near future.
Do you think the penny should stay or go? Drop us a comment or vote in the poll below.
Updated March 8, 2016
Originally published December 2011