As Biden revives plans to put Harriet Tubman on $20 bill — why the note has special relevance for the famed abolitionist

As Biden revives plans to put Harriet Tubman on $20 bill — why the note has special relevance for the famed abolitionist

Harriet Tubman, the famed Civil War-era abolitionist who led hundreds to freedom along the Underground Railroad, could be pictured on the $20, now that President Joe Biden is reviving a plan to give a make-over to the broadly-used bill.

Andrew Jackson — the country’s controversial seventh president who was wary of banks — has been on the $20 bill since 1928.

Considering those Tubman would join on the U.S. currency, that’s quite an honor. But there may be another reason why Tubman would get a kick out of being on the $20 bill.

History suggests the $20 had a special place for Tubman.

In addition to Tubman’s work freeing slaves and fighting against slavery, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the Civil War. Tubman was a scout, spy, nurse and laundry worker, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

By 1899, lawmakers agreed to set her monthly military pension at $20.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, but a $20 payment at that time equals a $531.58 payment as of December 2020.

It’s also a nice note to grace, considering how heavily the $20 bill is used.

Since 2009, the $20 bill has been the third-most prevalent piece of paper money, behind the $1 dollar bill and the $100, according to Federal Reserve data on currency in circulation by volume.  By the end of 2019, there were 9.5 billion $20 notes floating across markets worldwide, behind the 12.7 billion $1 bills and the 14.2 billion $100 bills.

Each year, the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors determines the amount of bills it wants the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing to generate. (The Treasury Department sets the rules on a bill’s physical appearance.)

When making its print orders, the Fed estimates how much
demand there will be, how many worn-out bills need to be replaced and the
amount of assets to back the notes.

The Fed ordered 1.24 billion $20 notes, second behind its order for 1.57 billion $1 bills in fiscal year 2020 . In its fiscal year 2021 print order, the Fed is calling for up to 3.96 billion $20 notes, making it the most printed money note this year. Coming in second, the order calls for up to 1 billion $1 notes.

Print orders account for replacements, so the bills being printed aren’t necessarily all coming in addition to what’s already in circulation. A $20 bill usually lasts 7.8 years before it is regarded as unfit for use, according to Fed data. The $5 bill has the shortest span of 4.7 years.

While the government reevaluates the $20’s appearance, consumers are reevaluating their use of cash. Even before the pandemic, more people were using less cash for transactions. In 2018, 29% of people surveyed by Pew Research Center went through a week without using cash, up from 24% in 2015.

But “contactless payments,” via a card, online orders or an app, have come to the fore as the COVID-19 cases mount. Almost 60% of participants in one survey of approximately 2,000 people over the summer said they’d stop using cash after the pandemic, though respondents were evenly split on whether they were using more or less cash now.

Spending habits aside, symbols matter, according to the
Biden administration.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the Treasury Department was “taking steps” to restart efforts to put Tubman on the bill, an idea initially floated during the Obama administration.

“It’s important that our notes — our money, if people don’t know what a note is —  reflect the history and diversity of our country, and Harriet Tubman’s image gracing the new 20-dollar note would certainly reflect that.”

Psaki said the Treasury Department would have to comment on the plan’s specifics. The Treasury Department didn’t immediately respond to a MarketWatch request for comment.

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