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Series aims to end $1-coin curse

THE NATION

February 15, 2007|Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — OK, so Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea didn't get the job done. Now the U.S. Mint is rolling out the big guns: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

But even the founding fathers may not be able to handle this challenge.

In 1979, unhappy over the speed with which $1 bills wore out and the cost of replacing them, the Treasury Department issued a dollar coin featuring Anthony, the women's rights crusader. But the public wasn't buying -- or, rather, using. Too many people thought the coin looked and felt like a quarter.

Two decades later, the department tried again, this time with the Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark expedition. The gold-colored Sacagawea coin drew early interest with collectors but again fizzled with consumers.

A total of $180 million worth of the coins, about 2 1/2 years' reserve, sit unused in Federal Reserve and U.S. Mint vaults, said Susan Stawick, a Federal Reserve spokeswoman.

Maybe the third time will be the charm: New $1 coins go into circulation beginning today, bearing the likeness of Washington. Those pieces will be followed later in the year by coins featuring Adams, Jefferson and James Madison.

Other $1 coins will follow for each of the succeeding presidents, continuing well into the next decade.

Even with such increased firepower, selling the idea to the public won't be easy. Research suggests at least half of Americans have no interest in dollar coins, no matter whose face is on them.

"Culturally, people in this country are more accustomed to carrying around dollar bills," said Jay Beeton, a spokesman for the American Numismatic Assn., a nonprofit group dedicated to the study of money.

So why is the Treasury continuing to push the idea? In part because the government hopes to save money by cutting back on people's reliance on paper bills, which last about 18 months on average.

Coins, on the other hand, can remain in circulation as long as 40 years before they wear down and must be withdrawn, making them a better value, U.S. Mint Director Edmund C. Moy said.

In addition, the government hopes to profit from the popular tendency to hoard coins -- not just pennies -- in jars, and to collect coins in series, such as the quarters celebrating each state that began appearing a few years ago. Because the production cost for each dollar coin will be about a fifth of its face value, the mint hopes to generate extra funds for the Treasury on coins that are issued but not spent.

"It's basically profit. You make a coin for 20 cents, you sell it for a buck," Moy said. "Instead of spending more money, this actually raises money. That's the benefit to the taxpayer."

Each coin will have the face of a former president on the front and be issued at a rate of four versions per year in the order the presidents served. That means you can expect to see the first four presidents by year's end, but will have to wait until 2010 for Abraham Lincoln and 2014 for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By law, living presidents are prohibited from appearing on coins.

Proponents of the coins, which will feature the Statue of Liberty on the back and the words "E Pluribus Unum" and "In God We Trust" along the edge, hope they will be as popular as the 50 state quarters.

"They'll be successful from a collector's point of view," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who sponsored the law creating the coins. But he acknowledged that the $1 coins were unlikely to replace paper bills anytime soon.

Beeton agreed.

"People are going to cling to their bills. That's what people do," he said. "There will be interest in these coins. Whether they get out into the marketplace is another matter."

adam.schreck@latimes.com

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