Americans chew over right to spend a humble penny

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2007, 12:00am

New York

They are officially money to be sure. But as the smallest unit of US currency, pennies often receive shabby treatment.

'I see them lying on the road quite often. I don't even bother to pick them up,' said Tom Brandy, a postman in lower Manhattan. 'What can you do with them?'

But controversy over the widespread disdain shown towards the penny may trigger legislation that would demand it be taken more seriously.

A group of people this month protested in front of a Chinese takeaway restaurant in the Bronx after a customer said the cashier refused to accept 10 pennies as part of the payment for a US$2.75 dish.

The group, including a state senator and several religious leaders, said the restaurant was discriminating against those who want to pay with pennies.

'This is America. If you want to do business in America, you have to accept all American currency,' said Ruben Diaz, the Democratic senator who attended the protest.

The drama was resolved when the cashier, who burst into tears in front of the TV cameras, shook hands with the customer, who then used some pennies to pay for chicken wings.

Senator Diaz is drafting legislation that would force shops and restaurants in New York to accept all forms of legal tender, including pennies.

But his comments and bill raise questions over whether there has been an overreaction and whether the actions target an immigrant-run business.

'It's all based on what one person said and they had a protest in front of the Chinese restaurant. It doesn't make any sense,' said city councillor John Liu.

Mr Liu said the cashier, who barely spoke English, told him later that she only meant to allow the customer to keep the pennies, as a discount, because he is a regular patron.

Mr Liu agrees that shops should take pennies but says legislation is pointless because 'there isn't a problem'.

A legislative aid from Senator Diaz's office brushed off the suggestion that his actions had racist overtones, saying the bill was triggered by many similar complaints against different shops.

Racial issues aside, some economists doubt whether pennies are worth rescuing. A surge in the cost of zinc, the main material in pennies, means the cost of making them has already exceeded their face value. And the labour it takes to count pennies during transactions reduces the real value even more.

But don't expect pennies to be dead any time soon. Last summer, Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe introduced a bill calling for penny abolition. It had only two sponsors. Mr Kolbe has since retired and the bill didn't go anywhere.

'There is this magical attachment Americans have to the penny, more so than people in a lot of other countries,' said Robert Whaples, an economics professor at Wake Forest University North Carolina, who wants pennies abolished.

'Abraham Lincoln's picture is on it. He is a great guy.'

To shops that might be caught under Senator Diaz's bill and fined US$500, 'pay it in pennies', one online posting suggested.

Big change

Number of US pennies in circulation 150b

If stacked, this number of pennies would stretch this many km 216,450