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What sense is a cent that costs more?

Published July 3, 2006

PLYMOUTH, Mass. - In this village settled by thrifty Pilgrims, you can still buy candy for a penny, but tourist Alan Ferguson doubts he'll be able to dig any 1-cent pieces out of his pockets.

The Sarasota resident rarely carries pennies because "they take up a lot of room for how much value they have." A penny bought a loaf of bread in early America, but it's a loafer of a coin in an age of inflation and affluence, slowly sliding into obsolescence.

For the first time, the U.S. Mint has said pennies cost more than 1 cent to make this year, thanks to higher metal prices, and nickels also cost more to produce than they're worth.

"The penny is going to disappear soon unless something changes in the economics of commodities," says Robert Hoge, an expert on North American coins at the American Numismatic Society.

The very idea of spending 1.2 cents to make 1 cent strikes many people as "faintly ridiculous," says Jeff Gore, of Elkton, Md., founder of a little group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny.

U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., agrees. He tried and failed to convince Congress to phase out the penny five years ago. If he fails again this year, he joked recently, he may open a business melting down pennies to resell the metal.

And yet, while its profile of former President Abraham Lincoln marks time in the bottom of drawers and ashtrays, the penny somehow carries a reassuring symbolism that Americans hesitate to forsake.

"It's part of their past, so they want to keep it in their future," says Dave Harper, editor of Numismatic News.

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 00:11:14]

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