Why Do We Need So Many Pennies?

Last night I happened to be looking at an old book of pennies and I was struck by the number of pennies minted each year. It’s gone up a lot since I was born. Here is penny production over my lifetime:

In 1958 we produced six pennies for every person in the United States. In 1982 that peaked at 72 pennies per person. Last year we minted 26 pennies per person.

Why the huge increase from 1958 through 1982? And why the decrease since then? I spent a few seconds googling this, but turned up nothing except an endless supply of rants about how we should get rid of the penny entirely. A few thoughts:

  • On a per-transaction basis, you never need more than four pennies per transaction. Given the randomness of sales taxes and the number of items purchased, I’d bet that the average number of pennies used per transaction hasn’t changed much.
  • As credit and debit cards became more popular, the number of cash transactions has probably decreased. This might explain the decline since 1982.
  • Does the increase through 1982 have something to do with people keeping pennies in their pockets less and instead tossing them into a coffee can when they get home? I have no reason to think this habit has changed over the years, and it would reach a steady state pretty quickly anyway. I don’t think this is likely to be a factor.
  • Production nearly doubled from 1978 through 1982 and then nearly halved from 1982 through 1986. What’s up with that huge spike?
  • Why the gigantic decline in 2009? On a per-capita basis, it was the lowest penny producing year since the year I was born. Does it have something to do with the financial crash?

It’s mysterious. The more people rant about eliminating the penny, the more pennies we make. We are a peculiar people, aren’t we?

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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