Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Penny for your Thoughts

It's funny how being away from a place for a while gives you new perspective on it when you return.

For instance, New York never seemed so crowded as when I got back from my tertianship. Downtown Melbourne, Australia had its pushy-crowd moments, but for the most part when I think of Australia I recall the wide open space, and the general ease of pace. Returning, it was hard not to be shocked by the pointy-elbows-out, in-the-paint-banging of Midtown Manhattan. But we've talked of this before...

Another thing which I've noticed more since returning is the American penny. Australian currency, with its 1 and 2 dollar pieces, is even more based on coin than our own. But they don't have a penny. They barely use a nickel, even. 10 cents is often the smallest amount you'd get back, and even that seems like a total waste of coinage.

Before going, I would have thought the penny a necessity, given the random costs of things, including tax. Things don't always come to an even number (or a multiple of 5).

But the truth is, they can. You just round up or down.

Today commerce works in quarters at the minimum -- and that's for a gumball -- and usually dollars or half dollars. (We rarely see a magazine for $3.05 or $3.20, for example. It's going to be $2.95 or $3.50.) The penny is like the appendix, an evolutionary remnant.

And in fact, I think that's actually true: I was at a baseball game with a couple older Jesuits last fall. And one was saying, when he used to go to Yankees games 60 years ago, it was 10 cents to get in. "10 cents was real money then," he said.

And... the penny dropped (couldn't resist it): the penny, the nickel, the dime -- these are really more or less remnants of the era he remembered. Even when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, candy or soda was 25-50 cents, a comic book would cost you 35 cents ... the point being, small change had some buying power. But not today.

It all makes me wonder what the heck are we doing using the penny? Why do we bother? For all intents and purposes it's useless, and we should eliminate it. But something tells me that's not high on the priority list of the federal government these days....

So here's another idea. We have all these pennies. We don't use them. But in other countries, a penny really still is a lot of money. So what if we put our pennies in piggy banks like we did as kids, and when the banks get full, we take that money and sent it to people or services where it actually means something. I've got a pamphlet on my desk for the Catholic Medical Mission Board. They help people all over the world (actually an astonishing 96% of what they raise goes to the services they support), and according to their information, a gift of $20 can provide a kid with basic vitamins that they need to survive for a whole year. $50 can distribute vaccines for mumps, measles or rubella for 100 infants.

Kiva.org and other organizations likewise allow you to give money as small as $25 that is collected and given as small loans called microloans to farmers, merchants and others in countries where $25 is again a lot more money than it is here.

Or, if you're looking for something closer to home, How about Red Cloud Indian School? Something like 70% of their yearly operating budget (which last I checked was around $10 million) has to be raised every year. That can't be easy these days...

All of us want to do good in the world. And it's harder to figure out how to do that, or even to pay attention to that, when there's so much economic downturn and anxiety. But even now, even if we're out of work, we can all do something. (And you can be assured, if we're feeling the pinch in the States, people in the developing world are enduring far worse.)

Most of the time I see pennies these days, they're lying on the sidewalk, in the street. They're useless. But collect them and send them off to someone in need, and they can still make a difference.

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