The Sacagawea dollar was introduced more than two years ago with a slick, $40 million television ad campaign. The celebrity spokesman was the original George W. — an animated George Washington.
Since then, the government has produced 1.3 billion of them at a cost to taxpayers of more than $160 million. But most people either do not like them, or, worse, never even heard of them.
Now, the U.S. Mint has suspended its scheduled production of 40 million more dollar coins this year, though it will still make about 10 million coins for special collectors' sets.
This was the government's third attempt to wean American consumers off the dollar bill in 30 years. The Eisenhower silver dollar was considered too big and heavy. The Susan B. Anthony dollar looked too much like a quarter. So the Treasury made the Sacagawea dollar golden instead of silver and smooth around the edges, not ridged.
There's a big financial incentive to sell Americans on dollar coins. While dollar bills are cheaper to make — about 3 cents apiece — they need to be replaced after about 18 months. Coins, which cost about 12 cents to make, last 30 years.
The Enemy: The Dollar Bill
The government promised it had learned from its mistakes, but once again failed to consider the American consumer's resistance to change. Steve Bobbitt of the American Numismatic Association says the biggest obstacle to wider acceptance of the dollar coin is the dollar bill.
"I think it is familiarity with the paper note," he says. "It is habit. They like it better. They just know it."
And, Bobbitt says, Americans seem to be very attached to their currency. When the Euro replaced currency denominations across Europe — some thousands of years old — "There was no resistance at all," he says. "They loved it, they moved right with it."
It's not just the government that wants to boost the dollar coin. The Sacagawea dollar was pushed by a variety of coin-dependent businesses that formed a lobbying group called the Coin Coalition. James Benfield, the group's executive director, says consumers have to change the way they think about money.
"Do not think of a dollar coin as necessarily replacing a dollar bill. Think of it as replacing four quarters in parking meters, coin laundries, vending machines, mass transit," Benfield says.
Officials with the Mint blame the slow economy for the low demand. But Bobbitt of the American Numismatic Association says the problem has always been more basic.
"As long as the dollar bill is around, this coin will not work, nor will any other coin work," he says.
Just in case, the Mint has 324 million of them in storage, enough to last more than 3 1/2 years if people will only take them out of their pockets.