In a sea of other pressing problems, the national debt might be easy to put on the backburner. In a September 2019 Gallup poll, only 2 percent of respondents cited federal debt as the most important problem facing the country. The problem can seem far from home, and the sheer magnitude of the numbers involved can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around.
Since the spring of 2019, NIFI has been hearing from groups throughout the country who have come together to deliberate on what we ought to do about the national debt. People from Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Kansas, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona have participated in forums using the issue guide, A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?
The guide was published by NIFI in partnership with Up to Us. An initiative of Net Impact, Up to Us is a nonpartisan movement of young people who work to inspire action, engagement, and education about the nation’s long-term fiscal health. Deliberative forums on the national debt were a component of Net Impact’s 2018 national conference in Phoenix and their 2019 spring leadership training.
In addition to the partnership that produced the guide itself, this issue saw several local groups develop partnerships with local media. In Kansas, TALK Salina partnered with the Salina Media Connection to air their forum on Salina Cable Channel 20. And a local forum group in El Paso continued their longstanding partnership with the local PBS affiliate KCOS13.
A common theme from the forums is one of discovery and learning. In post-forum questionnaires, more than 60 percent of participants reported discussing aspects of the issue in their forum that they hadn’t considered before. Nearly half said they had second thoughts about policies they favored coming into the forum. A moderator from a forum in Georgia reported that the main takeaway from their group was that participants left the forum wanting to increase their own knowledge of and awareness of the national debt and that they could better discuss the issue with friends and colleagues.
Indeed, these forums suggest participants are still in the early stages of their thinking on the issue of the debt. To use a traffic analogy, forum results produced lots of “yellow lights” but few clear green or red lights. Very few proposals mentioned on the post-forum questionnaire received overwhelming support or rejection. It seems, at least among this set of forum participants, that they are still working through the way forward. For example, participants were evenly split as to whether or not military spending ought to be cut, which could include painful base closures for some local communities. Participants were also evenly split on the prudence of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
In short, the picture we see from these forums is one of people just beginning to think through the nature of the problem itself.
This article is based on analysis by Kettering Foundation staff of reports made available by the National Issues Forums Institute.