Letter to a Seventh Grader

June 3, 2010

A short time ago, I received an interesting letter from a young man in Michigan asking about federal budget deficits. I thought that perhaps other students would be interested in the kinds of questions he asked and how I answered him, so I’ve decided to share my letter to him with all of you. Here’s what I wrote:

1. What are the primary causes of the current federal budget deficits?

The current large deficits are the result of a combination of factors. These include an imbalance between tax revenues and the government’s spending that began before the recent economic recession and turmoil in the financial markets, sharply lower revenues and higher spending related to current economic conditions, and the budgetary costs of policies put in place by the government to respond to those conditions.

2. How will budget deficits affect people under the age of 18?

The government runs a budget deficit when it spends more on its programs and activities than it collects in taxes and other revenues. The government needs to borrow to make up the difference. When the federal government borrows large amounts of money, it pushes interest rates higher, and people and businesses generally need to pay more to borrow money for themselves. As a result, they invest less in factories, office buildings, and equipment, and people in the future—including your generation—will have less income than they otherwise would.

Also, the government needs to pay interest on the money it borrows, which means there will be less money available for other things that the government will spend money on in the future. Squeezing other spending affects different people in different ways, depending on their individual situations. For example, many young people benefit from government programs that provide money to families in need of food or medical care or to people who have lost their job, or from the financial support the federal government provides to local schools, or from the grants or loans the government offers to help pay for college education.

3. How is the U.S. government working to reduce budget deficits?

The President created a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to draw up plans to address the deficit problem. Most of the people on the commission are Members of Congress.

The commission will consider ways to reduce the budget deficit by 2015 as well as ways to improve the long-term budget outlook. Under current government policies, the gap between the government’s spending and revenues in coming years will be large. Therefore, balancing the budget would require significant changes in spending, taxes, or both. On CBO’s Web site, you can find information about the budget outlook during the next 10 years and over the long term.

More information about the commission can be found on its Web site: http://www.fiscalcommission.gov.

Congress also has enacted a new law (called “Pay-As-You-Go”) that typically requires legislation that increases spending or lowers tax revenues to include other measures to offset the costs of those changes.

4. What can people, and especially school-aged children, do to help curb budget deficits?

The most important thing that school-aged children can do to help reduce future deficits is to study hard and acquire the best possible education. This will help you and your classmates get better jobs when you grow up, which will help the economy grow. In turn, a stronger economy will produce higher tax receipts for the government, which will lower the deficit.

When young people get jobs, they should be sure to save some of the money they earn. Through a fun and important bit of math called compounding, savings of small amounts can grow over time into significant amounts. For the economy as a whole, the more people save, the more money is available for businesses to invest in factories, office buildings, and equipment. For individuals and families, more savings provide a financial cushion in times of economic difficulty. In particular, more savings can help people pay large medical expenses or save their home in case they lose their job or become ill, thus helping them avoid needing government assistance.

People of all ages can also help to reduce the deficit by learning how the government spends money and from whom the government collects money. Understanding the current budget is essential for choosing intelligently among different ways to change programs and policies in order to reduce deficits.

5. If I am to convey one key message to my school regarding the federal budget deficit, what would it be?

The prospect of budget deficits for many years in the future is a serious problem for our country. Ultimately, people in the United States will have to bring into balance the amount of services they expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the amount of taxes they are willing to send to the government to finance those services. Because it takes a long time to implement major policy changes, deciding what those changes will be is an urgent task for our citizens and for our policymakers.

Thank you for taking the time to write to us about these difficult issues.

Best wishes,

Doug Elmendorf