STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The U.S. is doing anything it can to pay its debts. We heard last week about an unusual fund at the Treasury Department, inviting people to help pay down the national debt. David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money team found somebody who did.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Kay Fishburn says she can't remember exactly when she wrote her first check to the government or how much it was for, but it felt like a lot of money at the time.
Ms. KAY FISHBURN: Well, it is the hardest check you ever write. The first one was tough. You do get a nice thank you letter.
KESTENBAUM: From the government?
Ms. FISHBURN: Right. Yeah. The first was tough.
KESTENBAUM: Tough, but also good.
Fishburn describes herself as a tightwad. And she thought our country was in more debt than it could handle. This was in the 1980s. Fishburn was working as a nurse in Wisconsin. And 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 payoff the debt. It was called Citizens for a Debt-Free America.
I only realized after I found her and started talking to her, that actually we'd found her before - 20 years ago. She said, you know I was on MORNING EDITION. It's true.
(Soundbite of a MORNING EDITION clip)
BOB EDWARDS: The group says its efforts have helped raise 10 and half million dollars over the past five years. Kay Fishburn...
KESTENBAUM: So today, we bring you up to date. When we talked to her 20 years ago, things were going great. Fishburn and a small group were sending out tens of thousands of letters, hand addressing the envelopes, asking people to write checks to the government. The government, well, it seemed very governmental about the whole thing.
Ms. FISHBURN: There was a huge, long address for sending in the contributions -six lines.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KESTENBAUM: So she called the Treasury Department.
Ms. FISHBURN: They changed it. It started out Department X and...
KESTENBAUM: Department X?
Ms. FISHBURN: Yeah. Yeah. So just as soon as we got some printing done with Department X on it, they changed it to Department G.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FISHBURN: X sounded, I guess, a little weird. So the G for gift I thought was very good.
KESTENBAUM: And people did write in checks, a surprising number; World War II vets who wanted to help the country they'd fought for, people who had been in debt themselves. Year after year, the contributions added up.
Ms. FISHBURN: Started out $900,000, and I think the highest was nearly three million.
KESTENBAUM: Did you feel at some point like maybe this would work?
Ms. FISHBURN: Oh, yeah. I mean Americans pride themselves In getting the job done and doing things, and so I just assumed that this was really going to take off.
KESTENBAUM: Fishburn did the math and figured if everyone paid about two and a half to three percent of their income every year for 10 years, we could lick this thing. Now, Fishburn says she was of two minds about the project. Her teenaged kids were kids were kind of embarrassed by it; and the whole thing did feel a little - Utopian is the word she used.
Ms. FISHBURN: I mean it's outrageous. You got to admit that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KESTENBAUM: Did you feel that way at the time?
Ms. FISHBURN: Oh, sure. Yeah, I mean it's so off the wall that - that's what appealed to people.
Mr. ROSS PEROT (Former Presidential Candidate): Just this year, we ran up $341 billion in new debt. Thats our legislators and our president trying to buy our vote this year with what used to be our money. We're not that dumb.
KESTENBAUM: Fishburn wasnt the only one. That was Ross Perot running for president in 1992. And about that time people sort of stopped responding to Fishburn's letters. Maybe everyone figured the government was going to deal with it. In the 1990s, the government actually started running a surplus.
Kay hasnt sent in any checks for a while. But she's paid what she had calculated was her share.
Ms. FISHBURN: At the end of 1993, we were paid up. I dont owe anything on the debt.
KESTENBAUM: Did you feel like youd paid off your credit card or something?
Ms. FISHBURN: Well, I thought like I'd set something right. But of course, we know that it's still growing and in all likelihood will.
KESTENBAUM: Even without Kay Fishburn's efforts, people still donate money to help pay down the debt. This fiscal year so far: $1.6 million - which, by the way, is about .00001 percent of the debt.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And you can hear Planet Money on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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