An American Dream: Gifts To Pay The National Debt

Last week, we reported on a federal program that allows people to donate money to pay down the national debt. This week: The story of Kay Fishburn, a Wisconsin nurse who tried to rally thousands of ordinary Americans to make gifts to bring down the debt.

Fishburn describes herself a tightwad. Back in the 1980s, she thought our country was in more debt than it could handle.

So in her spare time she started what, as far as I can tell, is the only organized effort ever to try to get Americans to write checks to pay off the debt. It was called "Citizens for a Debt-Free America."

The group sent out tens of thousands of letters, asking people to write checks to the government. They hand-addressed the envelopes.

And people responded — people who had been in debt themselves, including World War II vets who wanted to help the country they'd fought for. The contributions added up to nearly $3 million one year, Fishburn says.

She thought her plan might really make a difference.

"Americans pride themselves on getting the job done," she says. "I just assumed this was really going to take off."

She figured if everyone paid about 3 percent of their income every year for 10 years, the country could pay off the existing debt (currently $13 trillion). Still, she knew the plan was a bit extreme.

"It's so off the wall," she says. "That's what appealed to people."

Then, in the early 1990s, when the federal government started running a surplus, her group lost steam.

Fishburn hasn't sent in any checks for a while. But by the end of 1993, she figured she had paid off her share of the national debt at that time.

"I felt like I'd set something right," she says. "But of course we still know [the debt] is still growing."

Even without Fishburn's efforts, people still donate money to help pay down the debt. During the current fiscal year, people have paid about $1.6 million.

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