For decades, Americans demanded and got more government than they paid for. Now the accumulated debt looms over the countrys politics and stymies its government.
Chastened by debt crises in Europe and worried that rising debt at home is a drag on an already fragile economy, Americans want to cut annual deficits and the debt thats piled up to close to $16 trillion. They just cant agree how it should be done, and their division helps gridlock Washington over critical questions of taxes and spending.
To learn whether theres any path to breaking the logjam and solving some of the governments intractable problems, McClatchy commissioned an in-depth national poll and interviewed voters in a dozen states, from small towns to big cities.
Some see the debt as the product of a generations demands.
A lot of that debt is what we owe ourselves for the standard of living that we all enjoy, said Joe Brosig, a 71-year-old retired landscaper from San Angelo, Texas. We are the ones that enjoy the amenities that improve our lives, such as infrastructure and services.
More see it as a bill thats coming due, and the sooner the country starts paying it, the better.
JoLinda Fridley, 44, an administrative assistant in Emmett, Idaho, is worried after watching husband, Shawn, get laid off after 20 years at Hewlett Packard. She thinks lifting the cloud of debt would help the economy recover. If we get a handle on the debt and start paying it off, I feel the economy would get better, she said. Its a trickle-down effect.
George Grant, 83, a retired research scientist from Sunnyvale, Calif., considers government spending the most critical issue facing the nation. The government spends more than they have, he said. They spend it everywhere.
In Henrico, N.C., retired school superintendent Donald Springle, 80, calls the debt the biggest issue in the land.
We just cant continue to pay 40 percent of everything we do to a foreign government and pay back in interest, he said. Sooner or later, its going to bankrupt the country, and my children and grandchildren are going to have to pay off the bill. Somebodys got to pay it. Its got to stop."
Who will pay that bill?
Bipartisan commissions urge the government to cut spending and raise some taxes to affect any significant cuts to the debt, but high-level talks last summer to achieve such a deal collapsed amid partisan finger-pointing. The two political parties are no closer to resolution than they were a year ago.
The McClatchy-Marist poll found widespread agreement that the nations debt is a top problem it ranked just below the economy and jobs, and above such other issues as health care, energy, taxes, housing and immigration. The poll also found widely different views on where spending should be cut or taxes raised.
Everyone sees the same problems, but when it comes to addressing the issue by changing the programs that people are most interested in, they think that more money should go to those problems or they should be maintained, said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll.
Few volunteer, and many fear they will bear the brunt.
Cheryl Dsouza is one of those who fears the debt will land at her door. As a 46-year-old divorced mother of two juggling a part-time job and college classes, she wonders what additional help the government might be able to provide if it werent already mired in debt.