I could only laugh when one of my students declared, “$8.5 trillion! That’s a lot!"
The student was astonished by a figure from a documentary I was screening. The documentary was fairly old, so the number in question, the national debt, was quite out of date.
Imagine my students' shock when I told them the national debt had now swelled past $21 trillion, with the federal budget deficit rising to $779 billion in the recently-concluded fiscal year. By the time most of my students graduate high school, the national debt will be approaching $22.5 trillion. As they don a cap and gown for their college commencement, interest payments on the national debt will exceed spending on defense and will be a major component of the federal budget. All of this has major consequences for their future.
We were having an impromptu discussion on the national debt in my economics class, spurred after I looked at the Congressional Budget Office’s October report indicating, that along with an increase in spending among the big three mandatory programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), interest on the debt jumped by 20 percent.
The point of this discussion was to make clear to students one simple idea: As the national debt grows, it is their future being mortgaged. At that moment, I realized that in order to keep this figure and its disheartening implications in sight for those students who will be saddled with this burden as adults, I should install a debt clock in my classroom.
As a teacher, I understand that providing young Americans the opportunity for a stable future is every parent’s wish. Education is often regarded as an essential element towards this end. As we are in the midst of college application season, it’s easy to see that much effort goes into setting up students for academic success. Hiring SAT tutors, ensuring students take the right amount of AP classes, and encouraging them to engage in extracurricular leadership opportunities are steps taken so students can improve their chances of gaining admission to the colleges that hold the most promise for facilitating financial success as they hit the workforce. However, providing young Americans with the opportunity to put their education and hard-earned degrees to work tomorrow means holding legislators accountable today.
More than half of the federal budget is dedicated to mandatory spending in the forms of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. For several years now, Social Security expenditures have been greater than receipts, producing a situation that continues to deteriorate as Baby Boomers retire and receive Social Security benefits en masse. The number of beneficiaries for Social Security continues to grow at a rate much faster than the working-age population financing the program, and an aging population will also put increased strain on Medicare for future taxpayers (i.e. today’s students).
The looming insolvency of these entitlement programs, as well as the likely financial crises arising because of unsustainable debt levels, can be averted with reforms. But reform requires leadership and hard choices, and thus, the easy choice continues to be kicking the can down the road.
This means that students today will enter the workforce with a surging national debt that will stunt economic growth and wages, and will make it much harder for them to succeed at the same level as their parents.
If society is truly concerned with providing the best outcomes for their kids and future generations to come, the national debt crisis cannot continue to be viewed as some abstract event with no true bearing on everyday life. It is something that will directly impact the financial future of every student today, perhaps just as much if not more than the college they attend.
By installing a debt clock in my classroom as a constant reminder, maybe I can have a small part in ensuring this reality does not go unnoticed.
Tyler Bonin is an economics teacher, education consultant, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.