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By Eric Stirgus March 29, 2011

Congress doing little to slow debt, student group says

Congress just doesn’t get it.

That’s the message from Young Americans for Liberty, a group of college students that is very worried about the growing federal debt, $14 trillion and counting.

Clayton State University has a chapter that is trying to raise awareness about the issue. Its main target is U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat whose district includes the Clayton State campus, located in Morrow.

Members of the group planned to place a sign on campus Monday announcing the size of the debt. The group offered some interesting statistics in a news release.

"Every taxpayer owes about $130,000 to pay off the national debt."

Scary thought unless you’re the lucky son of a gun who won Friday’s $319 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot.

So is this debt estimate true?

Young Americans for Liberty said it got its numbers from a website called The website has a page with numbers on federal government data that change by the second. It estimated the debt at close to $14.3 trillion and had the debt per taxpayer at $128,371. It says there are 111,087,453 U.S. taxpayers with taxable income. The people who maintain the website apparently divided the debt total by that 111 million figure to come up with that $128,371 total. We tried to ask them how specifically they came up with that total. The website had no telephone number. We sent them an e-mail and got an automatic response.

"Thank you for your comments," the message said. "Although we can't respond to all emails we really appreciate your input and Thank You for your support!"

This left us to our own devices to figure this one out. If you divide the debt estimate by their estimate of taxpayers, that equates to about $128,000 for each taxpayer.

But is the information the group used to come up with that total correct?

According to TreasuryDirect, a federal website, the total public debt is about $14.2 trillion. About $9.6 trillion of that debt is held by the public, which includes individuals, companies, and state, local and foreign governments. The rest, about $4.6 trillion, is held by the Federal Financing Bank, government trust funds, other funds and accounts.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, it will receive an estimated 140 million tax returns this year. The agency received an estimated 144 million returns for 2009. The IRS notes that some filers do not have taxable income because of various credits and deductions.

If you divide the $14.2 trillion debt estimate by 140 million taxpayers, that equates to about $100,000 for each taxpayer.

But is it best to use the total public debt? Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the federal government typically uses the debt held by the public, currently about $9.6 trillion, when it issues Treasury bonds. If you use that figure, the total per taxpayer is just under $87,000. That sounds better, doesn’t it?

So it is wrong to use the $14.2 trillion figure? "You can argue it either way," he said.

Peuquet added, "Ultimately, this $14 trillion figure is going to have to be repaid."

Economists note that it is good for the government to have some debt, primarily because the global economy "depends on some of that money floating out there," Peuquet said. Economists say the amount of public debt becomes a major concern once it grows to more than 90 percent of America’s gross domestic product. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that could happen in about 10 years, as health care costs rise and an aging population puts more demands on Social Security. The current public debt-to-GDP ratio is 69 percent, according to the CBO.

The debt is typically reduced when the U.S. economy improves, Peuquet said. A so-called "Gang of Six," a group of U.S. senators that includes Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, is meeting regularly to consider long-term solutions -- some suggested by President Barack Obama’s bipartisan committee -- to lower the debt.

Young Americans for Liberty used figures from a group that had most of its numbers right. The IRS uses a different standard to calculate the number of taxpayers. We’ll give the students the benefit of the doubt on whether it’s better to use the total debt figure or debt owed by the public. This claim needs some clarification, and under our guidelines, it rates as Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

News release from Young Americans for Liberty, March 24, 2011

Congressional Budget Office, Director’s Blog, March 18, 2011

Internal Revenue Service, statistical data on number of federal returns filed

Telephone interview with federal budget analyst Jason Peuquet, March 28, 2011


U.S. Debt Clock

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Congress doing little to slow debt, student group says

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