Psyched About the Harriet Tubman $20? Prepare to Wait
In an exciting, and overdue, bit of news, the US Treasury announced it is put a woman’s face on paper currency. After months of deliberation, the government chose Harriet Tubman, the Civil War-era abolitionist and suffragist. She’ll grace the $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson.
Exactly when this happens remains to be seen. The government moves at a glacial pace, especially when redesigning currency. In an open letter posted on Medium, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is hard at work creating new looks for $20, $10, and $5 notes, which it will unveil in 2020. That’s at five years spent remaking some very small pieces of paper.
At first blush, Lew’s announcement sounds like a victory for women, people of color, and their advocates. In addition to the Tubman $20, the ten gets a makeover, too. That’s the bill the the government suggested remaking with a woman in the first place, but that plan didn’t go over well. And so Hamilton will remain on the face (you can thank, or blame, the hit musical Hamilton for that), while the obverse will feature abolitionists and women’s rights activists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. The $5 bill is changing as well, to “honor historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial in service of our democracy,” according to the Treasury. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt will appear on the bill.
The government plans to unveil the new bills in 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. But that’s when we’ll see them. It will be far longer before those redesigns go into circulation and into our pockets.
As with everything else in government, be it electing a president or getting legislation through Congress, redesigning currency takes forever. A lot of this comes down to security. The blue anti-counterfeiting strip on the $100 bill took 15 years to develop. Beyond the security measures, the Treasury is dedicated to making the new bills more accessible for the visually impaired. That could mean new textures or tactile details. That, too, will take time to develop. A Treasury spokesperson says it’s impossible to say when the new bills will be ready, and anyone suggesting 2030 is speaking without certainty.
In an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times, Cokie Roberts described this as “yet another ‘wait your turn’ moment for American women.” That’s a valid complaint, one underscored by the very real question of whether anyone will be using cash in 2030. Technologists and futurists have long predicted the end of cash, and the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the success of startups like Square, and the ubiquity of ATM cards and electronic payments suggests that day is coming. But cash isn’t going anywhere. As the BBC smartly pointed out not long ago, cash is untraceable, off the grid, and works internationally, all of which makes it utterly indispensable. It’s also trending just fine: cash in circulation in the US grew 42 percent between 2007 and 2012. In a world made easier by Venmo and Apply Pay and the like, it’s easy to forget there are people who cannot, or will not, use such technology. That probably won’t change in 15 or 20 years.