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PolitiFact: Pawlenty muddled on national statistics, but debt is high

The statement

"Every child born today inherits a $30,000 share in a national debt that stands at more than $13 trillion."

Tim Pawlenty, in his book, Courage to Stand: An American Story

The ruling

In his book Courage to Stand: An American Story, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — a potential Republican presidential contender in 2012 — addresses a wide range of policy topics. One of those is the national debt.

"Every child born today," Pawlenty wrote, "inherits a $30,000 share in a national debt that stands at more than $13 trillion."

We wondered whether his math was accurate.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the total U.S. debt held by the public on Jan. 1, 2011, was almost $9.4 trillion. Meanwhile, the 2010 census just determined the national population to be 308.7 million people.

Divide those two numbers and you get $30,419 per person — right on target for what Pawlenty wrote.

But there's a catch.

Remember, Pawlenty wrote that the national debt "stands at more than $13 trillion." The number he's referring to is different from the $9.4 trillion we used in the previous calculation. The $13 trillion figure refers to something related, but different — gross federal debt, which is the sum of publicly held debt and debt held by other parts of the federal government. The additional debt included in this number typically is held by trust funds for major government programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Economists have told us in the past that they believe both measures to be equally valid.

On Jan. 1, 2011, gross federal debt stood at just over $14 trillion, which works out to $45,433 for every American.

So both of the figures Pawlenty used have a basis in reality, but they do not relate to each other the way he suggested. If Pawlenty wants to stick with the $30,000-per-person figure, he should have said that debt stands at more than $9 trillion.

Alternately, if he prefers to stick with the "more than $13 trillion" debt figure, he should say that the amount of debt per person exceeds $45,000. Since both of his numbers are right — just measuring different things — we'll give him some leeway and rate his statement Mostly True.

For more rulings, go to PolitiFact.com

PolitiFact: Pawlenty muddled on national statistics, but debt is high 04/04/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 9:07pm]

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