U.S. currency is periodically redesigned to mitigate counterfeiting threats. The Coinage Act, passed by Congress on April 2, 1792, created the first national Mint in Philadelphia and established a national currency system. The last two hundred years has seen many changes to the design of our paper money and coins.
In the United States, our coin money is manufactured and distributed by the U.S. Mint, and our paper money by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. At the U.S. Mint, the coin design and selection process is a multi-stage journey that begins with legislation enacted by Congress and requires the approval of both the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) (established by Public Law 108-15) and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) (established by Executive Order 3524). The paper currency production process is an equally arduous task that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing completes for its one and only “customer,” the Federal Reserve.
The design, production, and distribution of U.S. currency is regulated by statutory law, administrative regulations, and other factors including printing efficiency, counterfeit risks, and visual aesthetics. Some of the statutory requirements for U.S. currency are codified in Titles 12 and 31 of the United States Code, for example:
31 U.S.C. § 5103: defines the coins and currency of the United States as “legal tender.”
31 U.S.C. § 5112: outlines the requirements for dimensions and materials of coins.
31 U.S.C. § 5114(b): requires that “In God We Trust” be printed on all U.S. banknotes.
12 U.S.C. § 413: requires that banknotes bear serial numbers assigned by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
12 U.S.C. § 418: requires that the numbers of the issuing Federal Reserve Banks be printed on banknotes.
Riegle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act of 1994 (Public Law 103-325, 12 U.S.C. 4701): Currency that has been pulled out of circulation or redesigned is still legal tender and does not have to be recalled or replaced; however, United States Notes, an obsolete form of currency last printed in 1968, do not have to be reissued or replaced when they are redeemed.
The Department of the Treasury, with private engineering company ARINC, conducted a study in 2008 on accessibility options that may enable the blind and visually impaired community to denominate – or, distinguish the different monetary values of – U.S. currency independently. This study found that in 2008, there were 304,060 blind people and 4,067,309 visually impaired people in the United States, and it projected that these numbers would increase to 340,547 and 4,555,386, respectively, by 2020. Of those surveyed, 72% of participants said they would feel less vulnerable if currency was easier to use, 59% relied on someone at the point of sale to tell them what denominations they were giving or receiving, and 36% had received incorrect change within the year of the survey.
In May 2011, then Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner approved several methods that the Department of the Treasury continues to pursue to assist blind and visually impaired individuals in denominating U.S. currency independently, called the Meaningful Access Program. The approved methods include:
Adding a raised tactile feature to U.S. currency unique to each U.S. Federal Reserve note that it may lawfully change, which will provide users with a means of identifying each denomination via touch. Currently, U.S. law prohibits any changes to the $1 Federal Reserve note.
Continuing the program of adding large high contrast numerals and different colors to each denomination that it is permitted by law to alter.
Implementing a currency reader distribution program for all eligible U.S. citizens and national residents.
The U.S. Currency Reader Program was rolled out nationally by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) on January 2, 2015. This program provides free battery-powered currency readers to eligible blind and visually impaired U.S. citizens and national residents. The currency readers scan and read out loud the denomination of notes by inserting them into the device. The BEP also provides access to Currency Identifier Mobile Apps, which are free applications for smartphones and tablets that use image recognition technology and the device’s camera to scan and read out loud a note’s denomination. These applications include EyeNote for Apple iOS and IDEAL for Android. Additionally, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) offers a free library of braille and audio materials for U.S. citizens who are blind or visually impaired.
The future of currency design
Technology continues to run laps around advancements in the law, and a future of a national digital currency, or central bank digital currency (CBDC) may not be as far off as many of us may think. The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System released a report in January 2022 on the future of the U.S. dollar in the age of digital and cryptocurrency, weighing the benefits and risks of adopting a CBDC. Privacy, cybersecurity, and digital counterfeiting are all obvious risks to a centralized digital currency; however, many of the accessibility issues associated with using paper money may be relieved by adaptive technology. Visit the Federal Reserve System’s website for more information about central bank digital currencies and for opportunities to submit feedback on the most recent CBDC research.