OUR GOVERNMENT just dropped a hot new quarter featuring Maya Angelou with her arms dramatically aloft, posed before a bird’s giant wingspan. It’s the first of a series, each depicting women on the back. (George Washington is still on the front.) Arrival of the long-planned quarter was met with joy tempered with bafflement. Hey—aren’t we in a coin shortage?
The answer is complicated. For some time now, the United States of America, among her other struggles, has indeed been in the silvery throes of a slow-moving crisis of coin. It became apparent in the spring of 2020, when our sudden lack of desire to get breathed on forced many of us to stop transacting money IRL. The Federal Reserve found that in April 2020, only a third of Americans had made an in-person purchase within the past 30 days— and only slightly more than half of those people reported using cash. (In previous surveys, nearly everyone had reported recently making an in-person purchase.) We had ceased being cogs in the money-circulation system; we were neglecting our role as the pollinators of cash. It was yet another supply-chain issue, one in which the troublesome link was you and me.
With this disruption of the constant input of coins into banks and Coinstars and cash registers, the currency output hiccuped as well. That’s why, in the summer of 2020, you saw stores posting signs to warn customers that cashiers wouldn’t be able to make change. A Dollar Tree in the suburbs of Detroit was offering to buy coins from customers; Kroger stores were crediting change to customer-loyalty cards; and people in Belton, Texas, were charging into laundromats to use the change machines and then leaving, violating the social contract of laundromat fairness and making the problem of finding quarters even worse. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve started rationing coins to local banks, placing a temporary cap on how many they could order.
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