New York City Streets Are Paved With Lost Change (If You Look)
There’s a fairly pervasive idea that some people are just born lucky. These people, it’s thought, luck into good schools, good jobs, and even good relationships. But the luckiest of them all seem to stumble headlong into wealth, whether that’s winning the lottery (sometimes multiple times), inheriting vast sums from a long-lost relative, or finding treasure after using a metal detector for the very first time. Although the idea that some people are born lucky certainly holds water — being born into a wealthy family living in an already wealthy country is a pretty lucky start to life, for example — with persistence, a keen eye, and a willingness to stoop down every once in a while, anybody can introduce a little luck into their own lives on a weekly, if not daily basis.
In fact, the present author was coaxed into writing this post on account of their own chance encounters with Lady Luck (or Fortuna, or Tyche). In the last 6 months, I have been lucky enough to come across such items as a large British penny, a 35% silver war nickel, a $20 bill, and numerous “pocket spills” of loose change, all on my daily commute to the American Numismatic Society; although I maintain that this has less to do with luck, and more to do with keeping my eyes glued to the ground. After coming across a monumental scattering of 59 (yes, 59) one-cent coins upon exiting a subway car last week, I knew I finally had to put pen to paper and discuss my finds.
There are some questions we should attempt to answer first, namely: how does all this money end up on the ground in the first place, and why isn’t it being picked up more quickly? A commonly suggested answer to both is that the purchasing power of a single U.S. one-cent coin (or nickel, or dime for that matter) is practically nil. Because of inflation, a single cent in 1921 is now worth about 15 cents today. But 15 cents also has little to no buying power in 2021, so inflation doesn’t account for the whole picture. Instead, the value of one cent relative to what one earns helps to explain how one cent (or 15 cents in today’s money) could purchase more 100 years ago. For example, if a painter in Brooklyn earned on average $1.25 per hour in 1921, one cent accounted for 0.8% of their hourly wage. Today’s minimum wage in Brooklyn (and all of New York City) is $15 per hour, so if that same painter were working today, you would expect 0.8% of $15 to be around 15 cents, but alas it is only 12 cents — or ~22% less than the purchasing power of that 0.8% in 1921. Another way to think about this is that if one cent in 1921 is worth 15 cents today because of inflation, then someone making $1.25 per hour in 1921 would hope to be making $18.75 today, cent-for-cent. Of course, all of this is to say that wages have not kept up with inflation, making a single cent (or nickel, or dime) on the ground worth less and less in the eye of the beholder.
Not unsurprisingly, certain goods were actually more expensive in 1921 than they are today due to vast improvements in technology (and the shifting of production to countries where labor is cheaper). For example, a 5 -pound bag of sugar averaged a whopping 97 cents in 1920. Accounting for inflation only, one would expect that same bag to cost roughly $14.55 today, but of course 5 lbs. of sugar can be purchased for less than $5 almost anywhere in the U.S. today. Conversely, an average New York City apartment rented for around $60 per month in 1920, or $910 in 2021 dollars. If any reader knows of a suitable apartment that can be rented for that price in Manhattan or Brooklyn today, they are advised to inform the author immediately so they can rent said abode!
Another potential reason why change is dropped and not quickly recovered is perhaps due to a perceived social stigma around taking ‘dirty’ money off the ground, especially when that money has no purchasing power. Loose change that winds up on the street, sidewalk, or public transit system can easily be there for anywhere from a few hours to days, and has likely seen its fair share of shoes and tires endlessly trampling over it, each person or car bringing a fresh layer of dirt and grime to its surfaces. While street money certainly isn’t clean, I would argue that it is not substantially more dirty than the money that already circulates freely, especially here in New York City. That said, there may be a general sense that it is unseemly or simply uncouth to bend over and pick change off the ground (especially change one doesn’t particularly need) which prevents many from doing so, unless that change was just dropped by said person, and they are reclaiming their own almost-lost change immediately.
The meteoric rise of credit cards, debit cards, and other digital payment solutions may also be contributing to the abandonment of change, and the reluctance to pick it up again. As card and digital payments can be used for increasingly smaller amounts, there is less and less need to carry and use small change. In theory, this should also account for less and less change being lost overall, but as there is more than enough small-denomination coinage currently in circulation to satisfy the needs of commerce for many years to come (barring any recurring small change shortages like the U.S. experienced in 2020), it seems more likely that coins will continue to be lost as users pull out their credit cards, debit cards, or phones, rather than there being not enough coins to lose in the first place, however that may change in the coming decades as small change is phased out even more in favor of digital payment methods.
An interesting explanation as to why street money is not picked up is the Efficient Sidewalk Theory. This economic idea suggests that real, bonafide money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, therefore any money spotted in the street, on the sidewalk, etc. must not be money (i.e., it is trash or another object that looks like real money at first glance), and therefore these items do not warrant a closer inspection, especially one that requires the passer-by to stop and bend down. As such, bonafide money does go unnoticed—or at minimum, is perceived to be something else and ignored. Does Efficient Sidewalk Theory explain why a $20 bill sat on the ground during morning rush-hour in front of a busy subway station before the author scooped it up in a flash? Perhaps. With respect to small change (one-cent coins, nickels, dimes) Efficient Sidewalk Theory could maybe be expanded to include the idea that, because real money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, small change is not considered real money (or useful money) by the majority of individuals who pass by such change. In other words, the one-cent coin that sits for days on end on a sidewalk is absolutely seen as genuine (unlike the $20 bill, which could not reasonably be an authentic $20 bill according to the principles of Efficient Sidewalk Theory) but not perceived as real money of any value. In even simpler terms, if others don’t consider it useful money because they are walking past it, why should I behave any differently?
The final explanation for why change is lost and subsequently not picked up is that people are just not paying attention. If one has loose change and a phone in the same pocket, it is easy to imagine the change falling out unnoticed when the phone is taken out, simply because the attention is on the phone, which typically has far greater value to the owner. Likewise, it is easy to miss coins on the ground when one’s attention is constantly pulled elsewhere, especially in a large and hectic city environment. Even the author has almost missed a stray cent on the ground while sending a text message or making sure there is no oncoming traffic, only to look more closely and find several more cents in the same vicinity.
This brings us to the final point, which is what can all this lost money teach us? In a loose sense, even recently abandoned coins are in situ archaeological artifacts representative of what is valued or not valued in modern culture. Some have even taken to cataloging every coin and bill they have found over the course of several decades, which may prove useful to future historians and numismatists. In the 2004–2005 American Journal of Numismatics 16–17, there is a wonderful analysis of money found in West Lafayette, Indiana during a ten-year period between 1993 and 2003 (AJN Second Series 16–17, pp. 259–267). This study (titled Street Money: Distribution and Analysis) explores many of the same themes found in this blog post, along with a regression analysis of the objects found to determine if any distribution patterns could be discovered (outliers such as quarters, half dollars, and bills were discounted in this analysis). The key takeaway from this study was that the age of the coins (chiefly one-cent coins) suggested that these street finds represented a random selection of coins found in circulation when compared to ten rolls of one-cent coins withdrawn from a local bank. Also noted was the disproportionately high number of newly minted coins that were found (2003 in the case of this study) despite their sheen and luster, which made them more obvious to the casual passer-by, and therefore more likely to have been found by someone else, which of course they had not. The final takeaway was that these coins appear to be carelessly handled by the American public at large, a point which is not lost on the author.
There are other stories of individuals who have amassed large amounts of lost change through diligent (and sometimes not-so-diligent) searching, but it is mostly the case that these finds go unrecorded and unreported. Even the author has not made it a point to faithfully record every find (except major ones), but to help correct that, I decided to make a brief record of the aforementioned ‘subway spill’ to see how this cache visually compares to the data in the West Lafayette, Indiana study:
Additional data-gathering and analysis would have to be performed to learn just how representative this spill is compared to one-cent coins in circulation in the area, but on the surface, the selection of dates appear to be random, with a disproportionate number being newly minted (10 coins from 2021 alone), coinciding with the key takeaways of the West Lafayette, Indiana study, which is enough to encourage this seeker of street money to keep hunting and recording lost coins “So the Small May Not Perish.”