Popularity of penny is on the rise

Monday, August 5, 2002

CHICAGO -- Not long ago a member of the president's staff complained that the penny continues to exist because it features a likeness of Abraham Lincoln, who is from Illinois, as is the current Speaker of the House.

At about the same time, a congressman who wants the penny to disappear introduced a bill that would discourage its use.

OK, the staffer was a fictional aide to the fictional President Jed Bartlett on "The West Wing." But the congressman, Rep. Jim Kolbe, is a real Republican from Arizona. Together they triggered a flurry of news reports and renewed talk about scrapping the penny.

Today, though, the penny is safe. Kolbe's bill, introduced last year, is languishing in a subcommittee. His office said he doesn't have time to educate people about why the penny is a waste of pocket space. Talk about ending the penny has dried up elsewhere, too.

In Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, there was some discussion at the state's tollway authority earlier this year about saying no to pennies at toll booths -- 270 million come in a year -- but it went nowhere.

There are even signs the penny is on a roll.

'A new patriotism'

One survey by a company with coin-catching machines around the country found the percentage of people who want to see the penny discontinued dropped from 72 percent two years ago to 38 percent this year.

"We're thinking it has something to do with sort of a new patriotism post-Sept. 11, people don't want to give it up," said Jessica Taylor, who does public relations for Coinstar, which conducted the survey.

The penny also seems to be finding more use by fund-raisers. "There is a resurgence of charitable groups using pennies as a fund-raising tool," said Mark Weller, executive director for a penny lobbying group, Americans for Common Cents.

In Illinois, where nearly 60 years ago pennies helped the state buy a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, children participated in "Pennies for Lincoln," a campaign that raised $54,000 to help pay for a new Lincoln museum.

"We heard about dozens of other fund-raisers raising money with pennies," said Debbie Jemison, of the Illinois Bankers Associations, which helped organize the campaign.

"People aren't using pennies much so they are more willing to empty their pockets for our fund raisers," said Lee Harington of San Francisco's AIDS Emergency Fund, which collects about $50,000 a year in coin jars. "Most of the coins we get are pennies."

Don't like rounding

The penny may also be the beneficiary of eroding confidence in big business. Proponents of banishing the penny say rounding purchases to the nearest nickel will save businesses money because they won't have to spend time making change and handling the coins, and that rounding off purchases will work out in favor of customers as much as merchants.

But as questions have grown about the honesty of corporations, there seems to be a growing suspicion among the public that businesses will find a way to tip the scale.

"Most people, once you ask about rounding, the penny starts looking pretty good," said John Baldwin, an assistant director at the GAO who led a study in the mid-1990s that gave a number of reasons for eliminating the penny.

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