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Is US Currency Illegal?

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CNN reported yesterday that a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the U.S. Treasury Department is violating the law by failing to design and issue currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired people. This decision upheld a ruling from 2006 and could possibly force the Treasury Department to redesign the US paper currency so blind and visually impaired people can readily distinguish the bill denominations.

US currency has long been a sore point for blind Americans, who have to rely on other people to tell them the denomination of the bills they have. This can lead to big problems with unscrupulous store clerks or other people more concerned with making a dishonest buck than being a decent human.

The federal appeals court upheld the ruling that the current versions of the currency are in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is intended to afford disabled people the same civil rights and opportunities afforded everyone in American society.

Unfortunately, the US Treasury Department has never done a complete overhaul of their currency to align it within the realm of this law. There are a few world currencies that are doing things differently. Perhaps the US could learn from them.

euro-denominations.jpgThe Euro was designed with consideration for the blind

The European Union designed the different denominations of the Euro to have large, easily identifiable numbers and gradually increase in size as the denominations increase in value. This makes the bills easily distinguishable to those who are either blind or visually impaired. In fact, the European Blind Union was consulted extensively during the design of the Euro bills.

In addition to the large numbers, contrasting colors, and notes that increase in size as the value increases, banknotes are printed in relief, using an intaglio printing press. The €200 and €500 banknotes are printed in a raised ink relief to give the notes a distinctive tactile feel along their edges.

Possible Changes to US Currency?

According to CNN, the suggested solutions include making bills different sizes, including raised markings or using foil printing which is a method of hot stamping that leaves a noticeable impression on the bill.

Will the US redesign its currency?

It is too early to tell at this point, but if the U.S. Treasury Department is violating the law, it is possible they may be forced to make some drastic changes.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing recently contracted with a research firm to conduct a study to find a possible solution to this problem. However, the results of the study will not be available until early 2009. Whatever the result, I imagine it would cost the US government hundred of millions of dollars (if not several billion dollars) to redesign the currency and retool the printing facilities.

However, with counterfeit currency such a huge problem, this may be an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. If the US is required to make wholesale changes to its currency, I think the Australian Dollar would be a great currency to model it after.

New $5 Bill and $100 Bill. See the changes the US has recently made to the new $5 bill and the security features of the $100 bill.

The Australian Dollar and its anti-counterfeiting measures

australian_money.jpg Australian notes are printed entirely out of polymer plastic. This helps with counterfeit prevention and ensures the bills last longer in hot, humid climates. The first Australian polymer notes were printed in1988, and were rolled into production to replace old notes in the following years. This started a trend and now several nations use similar polymers for their currency.

Security features: The security features on the Australian notes are so good, the Reserve Bank of Australia has stated they are not aware of anyone being able to accurately forge the currency.

In general, polymer banknotes have more security features available to them than regular paper notes, including: microprinting, a clear window with a picture in it (similar to a watemark, but much more difficult to reproduce), embossing, intaglio and offset printing, different colors on the obverse and reverse of the note, and security threads that can be magnetized, fluorescent, phosphorescent, microprinted, clear text, or windowed.

Watch how the Australian Dollar is made (if reading through a feedreader or e-mail, you may need to click through to watch the video, or go to YouTube):

I thought that was pretty cool! :)

More world currency reading:

photo credits: Euro: DHD Multimedia Gallery; Aussie Money: pcejordan.


Published or updated March 1, 2011.
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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dividend Growth Investor

I have always thought that the same size in the notes is an issue. For example, when I get brand new notes from the bank and then try to spend them I have to be extra careful, because brand new banknotes tend to stick together, causing me to overpay. If notes had different sizes though, this might solve the problem partially :-)

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2 fathersez

I use the USD when I travel. And I have always found it a pain to have to check the denomination everytime. Good to know that I am not alone.

We use different coloured notes for different denominations and its so easy. BTW our 5 ringgit note is like the Aussie dollar is made of polymer. Feels so different.

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3 David Carter

I just saw this story on the news last night. It will be weird if we get money that is different sizes. I was thinking maybe investing in the companies that make tills. If they change the size of money, every business gonna need new tills cause their money won’t fit into the old ones.

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4 Ryan

David,

Way to think outside the box! (inside the box?).

I wouldn’t invest quite yet, though. If it happens it won’t happen for a few years and there is a lot that stands in the way of it happening. But that might be a good idea if and when. ;)

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5 Cheryl

@David – It’s possible they may make the $20 bill the size of our current $20 note, scaling the 10, 5, 1 downward, thereby allowing the other bills to fit in the same tills. The others would just go under the drawer like they do now.

@Ryan – Great post. Thanks for sharing with us. One note re: the polymer bills. They don’t stay folded as nicely as our money does, so you’ll have to watch out for them a bit. They have more of a tendency to “pop” out of your pocket/hand than ours. Not a serious concern, of course, but the upside is you can go swimming with them in your pocket. :)

Another idea for the dear old government is to just use dollar coins. In New Zealand they have dollar and two dollar coins.

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6 Ryan

Cheryl,

I think dollar coins are a great idea. The Treasury currently makes them of course, but most people just don’t use them. If the govt stopped making the one dollar bill it would be a huge cost savings for them.

I lived in England for a couple years and the smallest bill is the 5 Pound note; they also use 1 and 2 Pound coins. (Scotland has a 1 Pound note, but it is primarily only used in Scotland and the 1 & 2 Pound coins are also available and more common).

As for the polymer bills not folding as nicely, I wouldn’t mind. I think they would be more secure against counterfeiting and they would last longer – two huge problems our currently used currency has big issues with. :)

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7 Llama Money

Oh, I can’t help but think this is ridiculous. I’m sorry to all the blind folks, but we can’t keep accomodating EVERYONE and EVERY disability. It’s tough to be blind, I’m sure. But saying that US currency is illegal because it doesn’t specially cater to blind folks specific needs is absurd.

It’s like me deciding that trumpets should be illegal. After all, deaf people can’t tell the difference between D, E, and F. It’s discrimination, I say!

On the other hand I’d love to see silver coinage make it’s way back into circulation, for many reasons. As an added bonus, it would work well for blind people – different sizes and weights could be distinguished by feel.

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8 Ryan

Llama Money,

I know what you mean – sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way of progress. Target was sued because their website wasn’t accessible to the blind. That is a little overboard, I think. But money might be another issue.

Also concerning the money, I think the US is behind in counterfeit protection. If they could make a more secure currency, I am all for it. Different sizes and colors could just be a part of the solution.

As for the coins, I see no reason to use silver. I think it would be prohibitively expensive, and people wouldn’t spend them because of their intrinsic worth. As for the size and weight, I think they are already easily distinguishable to the blind.

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9 Llama Money

Using silver in US coinage would help restore confidence in our money – confidence that has definitely been slipping lately. As long as the face value makes sense, I see no problem with using silver. The benefit is that we could have $5, $10, $20, etc coins, instead of paper / polymer bills.

Ridiculous on that Target link. “Dude it’s a website” is the only thing that comes to mind :( Smiling is also discrimination toward the blind – they can’t see it. Laughing discrimation to the deaf. Heck so is speaking. When does it stop?

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10 Ryan

Llama Money,

OK, I thought you were referring to silver coins as in nickels, dimes, and quarters. The coins would be worth more than the face value. If we went to $5, $10, and $20 coins that would be different. But I still don’t see it happening. Everyone knows that US currency is a fiat currency and is only worth the word of the US govt, which keeps printing out bills en masse.

For this to have any real bearing on the value of our currency, the US would have to replace almost all of the currency in circulation or go back to the gold standard. Of course, buying up enough silver to mint the new coins would cause a run on silver, which would again raise prices more…

I see where you are going, I just don’t see it happening.

Agreed on the link. Ridiculous!

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11 Al Zermeno

Actually 90% of americans have no idea what a Fiat currency, is let alone the fact that the US dollar, is one is not backed by a damn thing. Most people think the FEDERAL RESERVE, a privately owned money issuing cartel is well you know “Federal” as in part of the government and that well there are RESERVES, meaning GOLD. After all thats why they picked the confusing name of Federal Reserve Bank, because calling it what it is “The Privately Owned Money Printing and Issuing Company,” would clue people in to what it is rather than pretending its part of the government. Someday Americans will actually understand what has been done to their money and they will be looking for the owners of the Fed, that will be a fine day for te Rockefellers, Lazard Brothers, and Rothchilds no? There are reserves of more bogus fiat money. The only legal money in the US right now are all those coins the mint keeps churning out.

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12 Llama Money

Yep putting silver back in the small change would be cost prohibitive, due to the huge inflation we’ve seen over the years.

And the fiat currency system means that we definitely won’t see silver in coins anytime soon, unfortunately. Just rambling really, about what I’d like to see. A silver / gold standard would be interesting though, for sure. Ahh to dream.

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13 Ron@TheWisdomJournal

Since the Treasury Dept is part of the Executive branch, and the Executive branch is responsible for the enforcement of the law, if a judge said the Treasury Department MUST redesign its currency, who is going to enforce the law? If the judge issues a fine, how does the Treasury department pay for it…in illegal money? These people need something to do.

It’s like you telling yourself you’ll run 5 miles if you eat dessert…yeah right!

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14 Mrs. Micah

That should be interesting. I wouldn’t mind prettier bills. And I still have to check the cash I work with at the library to make sure I have the right denomination (except the new and slightly colorful ones). They look awfully similar and I don’t want to unbalance my register.

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15 WealthBoy

Very interesting article. I almost never use bills these days since I can use my cash-back credit card for just about everything. I suppose a similar ruling probably won’t happen for credit cards because any fraudulent charges can be reversed with relative ease.

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16 Jarhead

The government always says the reason that we do not use dollar coins is becasue the public will not accept it. Well if they were to stop printing the dollar bills the public would have to conform. Why are they so hell bent on trying to appease everyone. People are creatures of habit and do not readily make change on their own. We are also very adaptable so when faced with something different we can adapt and continue on without any problems. Just my thoughts.

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17 debtdieter

As an Aussie I can vouch for our colourful plastic money and our 1 & 2 dollar coins. I can’t imagine having all my money the same size & colour.

Can’t say I go swimming with money in my pocket, but it’s nice to know I can.

Our dollar is almost on parity with the US dollar these days, which also comes in handy for us.

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18 Looby

I agree with FatherSez, I’ve always had trouble with US notes when I travel. I’ve just had to check(!) and although Canadian bills are all the same they are completely different colours.
In Northern Ireland we had the polymer £5 notes, they are much better than paper money in my opinion, especially because people on the mainland were always willing to buy them for up to £10 when I went to Uni!
I have to disagree with Llama though, I’m not a huge fan of most PC initiatives but there is no earthly reason why visually impaired people should have their independence impeded when it is well within the Treasury’s ability to roll out a new version. Let’s face it, this case has been in the courts for 6 years, the original ruling is 2 years old, if they had just accepted it the new currency could have been in effect already.

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19 Ryan

Debtdieter,

I think the Aussie money is awesome, and I highlighted it because I think the US should use it as a basis for a new currency. The current versions in use are too easily forged and not user friendly.

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20 Ryan

Looby,

I think polymer notes should be used – they are less likely to be forged and they last longer. I think the main reason the currency has not been changed though is because of the initial cost. It would probably costs billions to change the currency, run ad campaigns for the general public etc. That’s not saying the US doesn’t already spend that much money on fighting counterfeit bills on a regular basis, but politicians can be obtuse sometimes.

I think different sizes and colors would be a great solution.

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21 Mark @ TheLocoMono

I agree, it is really simple as changing the size of the bills. Until the time comes when every financial transaction is done with the scan of a fingerprint, it will always be an expense to maintain paper/coin currencies

I like the thought about the investing in companies that make the tills for the bills. Great thought, David.

Great post, Ryan. I never have seen an Euro or an Australian so you really put this into a visual perspective.

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22 Dale

What I don’t understand is why this country keeps old notes in circulation? Issuing new designed note and keeping the old ones defeat the whole purpose? I still receive 1970 issued 20 dollar notes and dont think anything of it. I could still counterfeit those and get away with it.

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23 Ryan

Dale: The older notes tend to get recycled with wear and are removed from the system as time goes by. The US doesn’t make the old bills obsolete because many people still hold on to cash reserves and stockpile old bills. Inevitably someone’s life savings would be wiped out if they did that.

But I agree with you – the same bills the govt. is trying to replace would be an easier target for counterfeiters.

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