Published Online: August 19, 2009

Commentary

It’s Their Future

Teaching Middle and High School Students About National Debt, the Federal Budget, and America’s Fiscal Horizon

Sixty years ago, an enlightened group of educators and business leaders, concerned that young Americans knew too little about the economy, created the Joint Council on Economic Education to develop and disseminate curriculum about personal finance, macroeconomics, and public finance to millions of schoolchildren. Ever since, a host of organizations—from Junior Achievement, to an interagency Financial Literacy and Education Commission, to many business groups—have made increasing Americans’ economic literacy a priority.

Why is this so important? Aside from depressingly dismal findings about young (and older) Americans’ knowledge of personal savings, how markets work, and government budgets and debt, you don’t need to be Adam Smith or Ben Bernanke to recognize that, as the “Cabaret” lyricists put it, “money makes the world go around.” While our world is defined by many nonmonetary things—beauty and love, family and community, the environment and security, values and learning—we live in a highly complex economy in which financial decisions at the personal, corporate, governmental, and international levels affect almost every aspect of our lives.

Starting in middle and high school, we need to be better informed economically to make sound decisions about personal savings and spending to improve our lifelong economic security. We also need to be better educated about macroeconomics and public finances—to know what does and doesn’t promote economic growth, and how and why taxpayer dollars are spent as they are—to thoughtfully evaluate policies that can bolster our national well-being.

Beyond balancing checkbooks and understanding the miracle of compound interest, young people need to learn—and teachers need the curriculum resources to teach—about public finances. How do federal, state, and local governments spend close to $5 trillion a year? How are these decisions made, and what does this say about our priorities? What does it mean that the federal government has a rapidly rising national debt of nearly $11.5 trillion (excluding another $45 trillion in unfunded federal liabilities), with additional debt incurred by state and local governments? And why do these imbalances in public spending—some might say, fiscal irresponsibility—pose such a risk to individual Americans’ future well-being? And, without delving too deeply into the wonkish details of entitlement, health care, Social Security, tax, and other budget reforms, what are the economic and moral issues involved in saddling young Americans with trillions of dollars of debt and risking economic calamity for future generations? What should students consider when they think about reforms that would put our nation on a more sustainable economic path?

A set of free curriculum materials about the nature, causes, and potential consequences of America’s looming fiscal crisis, developed for high school and middle school teachers, is being rolled out this fall by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Youth Leadership Initiative of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. These lesson plans—on Social Security, health-care spending and reform, taxes, and the budget process—integrate readings, audiovisual materials, online games and simulations, and student discussions and assignments in ways designed to provide an easy-to-understand overview of U.S. federal finances. They can be downloaded and modified for use in social studies, government, or other subjects at FacingUp.org or the Youth Leadership Initiative.

Eighty years ago, when federal debt and expenditures were relatively minuscule, President Herbert Hoover quipped: “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.” Whether they are blessed, cursed, or potential agents of change, young people can benefit immeasurably from learning about public finances, the challenges America faces, and the reform options that can put our nation on a more fiscally sustainable and prosperous course.

Vol. 29, Issue 01

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