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By Caryn Shinske November 15, 2012

Caroline Casagrande says every American owes federal government $51,000

Pity the poor children of the United States – they, along with their parents, are already in hock to the federal government for thousands of dollars.

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth) made that claim Oct. 26 during an interview with Michael Aron on NJTV’s "On The Record."

"Every American now is $51,000 in debt," Casagrande told Aron. "That’s money I owe, that’s money my children owe before they even go to kindergarten, that’s their check to the federal government right now."

Casagrande’s number is solid, but she doesn’t have to worry about whipping out her checkbook or debit card any time soon, some federal budget experts say.

Let’s start by reviewing the two commonly cited forms of national debt -- debt held by the public and total debt.

Debt held by the public is money borrowed from investors outside of the federal government. The total debt represents debt held by the public as well as money the federal government owes itself, including for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Now let’s look at the numbers in Casagrande’s claim.

The U.S. Government Debt website on Nov. 6 – the date we started looking into Casagrande’s clam -- listed the national debt at $16,295,297,196,000. If that’s divided by 314,719,484 -- the total U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau, each American owes the federal government $51,777.21.

So, Casagrande’s number is accurate. But should Americans actually expect to pay that bill? Not necessarily.

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution who has worked as a government economist and served on federal advisory panels under presidents of both parties, explained that what the nation owes each year on the national debt is annual interest and principal payments.

"Do grandma and the grandkids have to pay off the national debt, as Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande seems to suggest?  No, they do not," Burtless wrote. "Our grandkids’ great grandparents did not pay off the federal debt; neither did their parents or grandparents. There is no rule that the national debt has to be paid off in one generation, three generations, or even ten generations. Taxpayers do not face the possibility that they will receive a $51,000 bill in the mail anytime soon."  

An invoice might not be in the mail but Casagrande’s statement is fair, according to spokespeople for the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

"We’re not even going to pay off the debt, we’re going to pay down the interest," said Matt Jensen, a research associate in Economic Policy Studies at the AEI. " Under no proposal that I’ve seen is someone paying down the debt in real dollars. What we’re really talking about is paying the interest on the debt, forever. You’ll pay the interest, your children will pay the interest."

Our PolitiFact colleagues in Virginia and New Hampshire also looked into similar claims in their states and found that the amount of debt cited by their lawmakers was largely accurate.

Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes in January said the national debt amounted to $48,700 for every American or $128,300 for every U.S. Household. Our colleagues rated the claim True.

In August, PolitiFact New Hampshire rated Mostly True a claim by Rep. Frank Guinta that every child in the United States has a $50,000 share in the national debt. Guinta  received a Mostly True because that would mean each of the nation’s nearly 74 million children would owe $216,102. Guinta’s figure was accurate, however, when the debt was spread across the entire population.

Our ruling

Casagrande said in a television interview, "Every American now is $51,000 in debt. That’s money I owe, that’s money my children owe before they even go to kindergarten, that’s their check to the federal government right now."

A simple mathematical calculation confirms that every American technically owes the government $51,777.21 toward the national debt. But will youngsters have to suddenly start handing over their allowances to pay down the federal deficit? Not likely. We rate the statement Mostly True.

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Our Sources

NJTV, "On The Record" interview with Michael Aron, Oct. 26, 2012, accessed Nov. 6, 2012, accessed Nov. 6, 2012, Today’s Federal Debt debt clock, accessed Nov. 6, 2012, "Surprising facts about birth in the United States," accessed Nov. 6, 2012

E-mail interview with Gary Burtless, Brookings Institution economist, Nov. 6, 2012

E-mail interview with Deborah Kilroe, associate director of Communications, Congressional Budget Office, Nov. 6 and 7, 2012

Congressional Budget Office report, "An Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022," August 2012, accessed Nov. 7, 2012

E-mail interviews with Greg Volpe, Assembly Republicans spokesman, Nov. 8 and 9, 2012

PolitiFact Virginia, "Rep. Randy Forbes says national debt comes to $48,700 per person," Feb. 3, 2012, accessed Nov. 8, 2012

PolitiFact New Hampshire, "U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta points to each child’s share of the national debt," Setp. 12, 2012, accessed Nov. 8, 2012

PolitiFact Ohio, "John Boehner says Obama engaged in a spending binge that rang up a $16-trillion debt," Sept. 19, 2012, accessed Nov. 9, 2012

Phone interview with Matt Jensen, research associate in Economic Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute, Nov. 13, 2012

Congressional Budget Office report, "The 2012 Long-Term Budget Outlook," June 5, 2012, accessed Nov. 13, 2012

American Enterprise Institute report, "A Simple Measure of the Distributional Burden of Debt Accumulation," Oct. 1, 2012, accessed Nov. 13, 2012

E-mail interview with Romina Boccia, research coordinator, The Heritage Foundation, Nov. 13, 2012

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Caroline Casagrande says every American owes federal government $51,000

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