Spike In Citizens' Donations For National Debt

In fiscal year 2012, the Bureau of the Public Debt received nearly $8 million in donations from private citizens, far surpassing the previous year's haul. But it barely makes a dent in the overall national debt. So why give away all that cash?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some Americans aren't waiting for the government to tackle the country's budget problems. They're opening their own wallets to help. Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced that it had received $7.7 million in donations from individual citizens to help pay down the national debt.

JOYCE HARRIS: It's a lot more than we had received in past years. I'd say over the last five years, from say 2007 to now, it's been an average of about $2.7 million or 2.8 million.

MARTIN: Joyce Harris is a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Public Debt. That's the arm of the U.S. Treasury Department that takes donations from private citizens.

And while $7.7 million is a big spike in contributions compared to past years, we were trying to figure out a way to compare it to the national debt as a whole. So we bought a bag of rice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING RICE)

MARTIN: Now imagine that this bag of rice is the budget deficit for just this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING RICE)

MARTIN: Here that? Sounds like a lot of rice, right? OK, so then this is how much the American people donated to the Treasury.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FALLING COIN)

MARTIN: A single grain of rice. Out of more than 140,000. That's around five pounds of rice. So, why give away all that cash?

Ron Berry is one of the Americans who donated this year. The retired Vietnam vet says he stumbled upon the Treasury donation program online.

RON BERRY: I was on Twitter and I was just looking for some information. So I hashed-tagged national debt, and I read a tweet that said that you could donate to the national debt on pay.gov.

MARTIN: He gave $50 this year and he says he hopes to make donating to the U.S. Treasury a quarterly thing, if he can afford it.

BERRY: I mean, it is our national debt and we have to pay it off, we Americans. So I'm just doing my part.

MARTIN: And if money is a little tight right now, consider this: the pay.gov site will let you put your donations to pay down the national debt on a credit card.

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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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