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Nation's debt, giving practices: One too high, other too low

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003

The numbers are mind-numbing.

The Bush administration last week raised its budget deficit projections to $455 billion for this year and $475 billion for next. The figures easily break the previous record shortfall of $290 billion in 1992. The National Debt Clock put the total public debt at $6,725,825,859,465.80 as of Saturday.

State budgets, as Alaskans are well aware, also are riddled with red ink. Earlier this year, the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 41 states faced a cumulative budget gap of $78.4 billion.

The numbers prompt cries for leaner, more efficient government, as if citizens can manage their money much more wisely than politicians and bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence to support that. Those calling for government to live within its means also likely need to get their own financial houses in order.

In 2000, total consumer debt was reported to be approximately $5 trillion about the same as the national debt. Household debt now totals 110 percent of annual disposable income. Approximately 1.6 million people filed for personal bankruptcy last year, a record.

Clearly, government isn't alone in not being able to live within its means.

What does all that debt mean?

Economists disagree, but it seems clear eventually that debt will be a burden to the overall economy. How can an economy blossom when its resources are going to debt repayment? Any family trying to get out of debt knows sacrifices must be made to accomplish that feat; the same holds true for national and state governments.

Public and consumer debt has other implications for the nation's quality of life. Cries for leaner and more efficient government have prompted national and state governments to look at faith-based initiatives as ways to better accomplish the delivery of some social services.

In a speech announcing members of the state's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Task Force, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman remarked: "Fourteen years ago, when I was a freshman member of the State House, I suggested that a lot of our social service programs really shouldn't be primarily the responsibility of government. Rather we should take on this responsibility individually as family, friends, neighbors, social groups and churches to really care for the needy among us. That, as you know, takes personal investment."

Saddled with their own debt, however, it's easy to wonder if citizens are willing and able to make that personal investment. Charitable giving is down, just ask nonprofit groups on the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere. There are logical reasons for the decline: The state of the economy has led to job losses and diminished family income. Those who have jobs are worried about their financial future. The war on terrorism is making some people more cautious with their income.

The Catch-22 is that while giving may be down, needs are up. The very reasons that people may hold back from giving also create a climate in which there is a need for more social services.

Churches are among the groups suffering from a decline in giving. A new study by the Barna Research Group shows that the numbers of households who give at least 10 percent of their income to their church has dropped by 62 percent from 8 percent in 2001 to just 3 percent of adults during 2002.

As government at all levels looks at new ways to do things, including the state's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, it's imperative officials consider that public and private debt may be a hindrance to providing services to those who need them. In fact, one of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives the lieutenant governor's task force should look at is a program that teaches people how to pay off their debts and live within their means.

It's also important that the public be made aware of how important their giving is, how it makes a difference, how it changes lives for the better, how it truly is an investment in their community. As they have racked up their own debt to the point of not being able to help themselves, Americans have become too reliant on government and big business to take care of needs in their communities that once fell under the purview of neighbors helping neighbors. The more people take responsibility for ensuring their neighbors are healthy and safe, the more connected they become with those neighbors and the place where they live. That can only be a good thing.

The church described in the New Testament provides a model as Americans consider their responsibility to one another: "And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need." (Acts 2: 44-45, New Living Translation)

Those contemplating Faith-Based and Community Initiatives will do well to realize Alaskans will have more to give the quicker they get out of debt. And, who knows, a state government whose citizens are debt-free might just find the will and the way to accomplish the same thing.



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