The National Debt for 6th Graders

Sunday, September 18, 2011 1 Comments A + a -


If we are to be competitive with emerging economies of the world (see China and India), our schools must speak to what has come to be known as "21st century skills."  These are skills that are absolutely critical for a student to be successful in postsecondary education and more importantly, the workforce.  Some of these skills are absolutely not new:  effective communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical thought are key ones.  However, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national non-profit that advocates for a new direction of school reform, equally critical are 21st century interdisciplinary themes such as global awareness, environmental literacy, civic literacy... and get this- financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy.  This clearly has a lot of implications for how and what we teach kids, particularly around the standards of "understanding how to make appropriate personal economic choices" and "understanding the larger role of the economy on society."

These thoughts ruminated in my head as I read a piece in a recent morning faculty bulletin from Miscoe Hill Principal Ann Meyer.  It was a simple exercise for kids and adults alike to put the national debt in perspective.  It read like this:

Below is a nice simple view of the financial problem in the U.S.  It is also the reason why Standard & Poor downgraded the U.S. credit rating:
  • U.S. Tax Revenue:  $2,170,000,000,000
  • Federal Budget:  $3,820,000,000,000
  • New Debt:  $1,650,000,000,000
  • National Debt:  $14,271,000,000,000
  • Recent Budget Cut:  $38,500,000,000
Okay, so all of those zeroes make us glaze over!  So let's make this problem a little simpler... and pretend that the federal government is a family of four and they have a household budget and expenses.  With that said, let's remove eight zeroes from the figures!
  • Annual family income:  $21,700
  • Money the family spend:  $38,200
  • New Debt on the Credit Card:  $16,500
  • Outstanding Balance on All Credit Cards:  $142,710
  • Recent Budget Cut:  $385
Interesting perspective, no?  I was curious if a child... say a middle school student... could understand this analogy. Thus, I put my own middle schooler, my 11-year old daughter Molly, to the the test.  Here she is pondering the facts of this financial dilemma:


I asked her to write out the above bullet points of the fictitious family of four and then answer the following questions:  1)  What do you think of this? and 2) What would happen to this family? 

After some thought, Molly's comments to me included the following:
  • "I don't get it... how can you spend more money than you make??"
  • "This family really didn't cut much from their budget.... ya think??"
  • "Dad, do you think that this family would lose their house?  I do."
Out of the mouth of babes....

If this analogy on the national debt doesn't drive it home neatly for you, there's always comedian Bill Maher's plate of food analogy.... Enjoy!


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October 12, 2011 at 3:59 PM delete

Thanks for your posts. I'm going to ask my 11-year old daughter this one as well.

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