1. Archive


Since 1961, people have sent donations to help pay the nation's debt: $72-million so far.

It's the biggest tin cup in the world.

More than $9.2-trillion in the hole, the U.S. Treasury Department is hitting up donors to help pay off the debt. Civic-minded citizens send checks - mostly between $10 and $100 - to a post office box in Parkersburg, W.Va., and the donations quickly make their way into the public coffers.

"Some folks send in money on a regular basis," said Bureau of the Public Debt spokesman Pete Hallenbach. "It's kind of curious."

Since 1961, concerned citizens, grateful emigres and schoolchildren culling quarters from pickle jars have ponied up $72-million in donations to help offset rivers of government red ink.

It hasn't made much of a dent in the debt.

With the federal government burning through nearly $6-million a minute, the money sent in over the past 47 years covers just 12 minutes of government spending. And with this year's budget deficit set to hit $410-billion, the country is piling on additional debt at a rate of $1.1-billion a day, or a staggering $46-million every hour.

"So long as we're running huge budget deficits, the willingness of the public to contribute their nickels and dimes and dollars isn't going to do much good to pay down the debt," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan grass roots group that advocates for debt reduction. "Nobody should kid themselves."

The donations themselves are tax-deductible. In theory, at least, that means that for every dollar donated, someone's tax payments are reduced by between 20 and 30 cents, so the government collects that much less in taxes.

The checks trickle in, several dozen a month, said Hallenbach, who sends thank-you notes to anyone who donates $5 or more.

That task has made Hallenbach something of an expert on the kinds of folks who contribute cash to pay down a small portion of the debt and the varied reasons why they do it.

"It's generally a concern for how big the debt is and also a desire to give something back," he said. "They'll say, 'I would like to see that debt go away so that my children, grandchildren, won't have to deal with it.'"

He remembers some of the colorful contributions.

"There were some kids in South Carolina one time that held a carwash - the gift was around 200 bucks," he said. "Other kids have kind of put the old pickle jar around in stores."

The effort isn't entirely in vain. At $9.2-trillion and rising, the national debt is still, after all, $72-million less than it would be without the donors.

In the end, though, the program probably best serves the cause by raising awareness of the scale of the national debt and helping to build a consensus for reducing it, said Bixby.

"The best way for people who are concerned about the public debt to do something about it," he said, "is to elect public officials that are concerned about the deficit and are willing to do something about it."