Pennies: No Longer From Heaven

Every time it rains it rains pennies from heaven.
Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?
You’ll find your fortune’s fallin’ all over the town,
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down.

apennyforyourthoughtsThe number of pennies discarded on American dressers each year might fill an inverted umbrella, but most of us don’t think they add much to our fortunes.

Some of us, in fact, are annoyed by the penny and would like to see it disappear.

Not long ago I stood in a long queue at a local grocery store, one of a crowded line of anxious customers who came to fill their larders ahead of a threatened blizzard.

In such circumstances I try to stay calm and remember I am retired, but the mood turned ugly as the massive volume of groceries began to overwhelm the cashiers.

The woman in front of me sighed as she thrust the last swollen bag into her cart and handed the cashier a wad of cash. Her change came to $6.01.

“Oh my God,” the cashier gasped. “I’m out of pennies!” Immediately the cashier slammed her cash drawer shut and ran off with the bills.

“Wait,” the customer said under her breath as the cashier disappeared.

Then she drew a breath and screeched into the crowd:

“Keep the goddam penny!”

But the cashier had vanished with the woman’s cash and she stood helplessly at the front of a mired line of frustrated customers.

“She went to get a goddam penny,” the woman shouted incredulously. Persons in the front of the line began to explain the problem to persons at the end of the line. “She went to get a goddam penny.”

Fortunately the incident ended without mishap, but it was clear most of us in the line thought our time was worth much more than the penny that held us up. We would have happily endorsed the woman’s futile battle cry: “Keep the goddam penny.”

Of course many Americans place great emotional value on the little brown coin. My father collected pennies as a hobby, and in the 1970s when he retired as a teacher, his colleagues gave him a 1909 S VDB penny – the holy grail of penny collectors – instead of a gold watch. It was worth a few hundred bucks then, and today it might be valued at nearly $2,000.

I have no idea what happened to that penny, and to most people who have unknowingly carried the S VDB around in their pockets, it’s just a penny.

Now there is a perceptible movement in the U.S. to eliminate the penny.

I would place myself in that camp.

Of course many cash paying people worry that if there were no pennies, retail stores would cheat them every time your change totaled, say, $6.01.

But I don’t think it would make any difference. Retail stores would also stand to lose pennies when the bill was in the customer’s favor, and very quickly customers and merchants would be even.

I’ve seen it happen.

When I lived in England during my Air Force years (1965-68), Americans were not allowed to use pennies, even in the PX and other places dollars were used. Back then, British currency was not yet on the decimal system. The pound consisted of twelve shillings, and the shilling was twelve pence. British pennies were large copper coins, and most people preferred to carry the diminutive six-pence coin lest the heavy sterling wear holes in their pockets.

The six-pence was precisely the size of the U.S. penny, but worth ten times more. The rub came when Americans discovered the Lincoln penny worked fine in every six-pence vending machine in the British Isles, and candy, sodas, and cigarettes could be glommed at a fraction of their worth.

As a result, U.S. pennies were declared illegal, and purchases at the base commissary or PX were rounded off to the nearest nickel. No one missed the pennies, and no one felt cheated. I don’t think it had any effect at all on the International Balance of Payments.

I’m sure the penny would not be missed today if it was retired forever to the little blue books in which collectors carry them. Collectors themselves would stand to benefit as pennies became rare and valuable, but that’s fine with me. The rest of us would be content to be free of sluggish lines that become moribund as cashiers search for the elusive copper.

But there’s an even better reason to eliminate the penny. It costs too much to make them. It costs the U.S. Mint almost 2 cents to make a 1 cent coin – most recently 1.67 cents is spent to make a penny.

Losing a fraction of a penny each time a penny is made may not seem like a big deal, but the Mint says the annual loss to the taxpayer is nearly $53 million a year.

Most of us can’t fathom how much $53 million is, but it’s illuminating to ask Google what you can buy for that amount.

My favorite item on that list is an Embraer Lineage 1000E jet, which would be a nice little acquisition for any household.


Of course, God only knows what the U.S. Government would do with an extra $53 million a year. It might be used to purchase a predator drone or two. If that’s a case, I could live with Mr. Lincoln’s benign copper visage a while longer.

But in the best of all possible worlds, the money would be diverted to the Environmental Protection Agency, Veterans Affairs, or Health and Human Services, where it would serve the kinds of folks Mr. Lincoln most resembled.

And then we could add another honorific to the spirit of the great man whose profile now adorns our most useless coin: the man whose ideals emancipated us from the penny.

A thoughtful commentary from my granddaughter Charlie.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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