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The current debate in Washington over the so-called "fiscal cliff" and the fights over U.S. tax and budget policy may seem far removed from most of our daily lives. They may seem like a bunch of decisions that are being made by people in Washington, in isolation, in ornate meeting rooms; decisions that won’t directly affect your life and that you couldn’t hope to influence. As a woman who has chosen to spend her career fighting our country’s fiscal problems, and as the mother of two elementary school-age children, I’m writing to tell you that these decisions will directly affect you and your family, and that there is something you can do about it.
Let’s start with the part that’s been so much in the news: the “fiscal cliff.” What you probably know is that unless Congress and the President act, we’re set to fall off this "cliff" at the end of the year, dramatically hiking all sorts of taxes and indiscriminately slashing spending programs. What you might not know is what this means for you and your family. I’ll put it this way: they say it’s not the fall but the landing that hurts. While everyone in this country would fall off the fiscal cliff together, some will hit the ground harder than others.
If you are low-income or your family’s breadwinner is out of a job, you would hit the ground particularly hard. Federal money that funds state programs for nutrition for low-income women and children would be slashed, as would funding for public housing, education and unemployment insurance.
If you own a business, you’d also hit the ground hard: falling off the cliff would be profoundly damaging to small business and start-ups, for whom policy and economic stability is vital in order to be able to plan ahead and to earn the necessary funding to grow your business and attract new customers.
And if you can’t afford to pay more in taxes during this time of economic instability? You’d hit the ground, too.
But here’s the real kicker: if we just put off the cliff without doing anything to change the trajectory if our rapidly-accumulating national debt, we’ll still hit the ground, just a bit later, and harder. Research shows that once debt reaches elevated levels, an economy can be expected to grow significantly slower each year, causing the threat of a fiscal crisis to grow even larger. In addition, the higher the debt grows the more money we have to divert from the things that matter just to make interest payments. Last year, for instance, the government spent more on interest on the debt than it did on agriculture, transportation, education and housing – combined.
This is simply unsustainable. Within the next decade, if we just cancel the fiscal cliff but do not replace it with any meaningful deficit reduction, we’ll be paying a trillion dollars in interest per year on a debt that is larger than the entirety of America’s annual economic output. We can’t allow that to happen. If we fail to deal with these problems now, we just put them off to grow even bigger for our children – yours and mine – to deal with later.
The urgency of acting is a call to action for all of us. Running a bipartisan think tank on budget issues leaves me working long hours, and has forced me too often to come home too late to spend much quality time with my children on weeknights. But I feel obligated to pass to them a stronger, more stable economy, one that will provide ample opportunities for my children – all of our children – to strive for whatever kind of career and lifestyle they choose.
This is why I helped launch the Campaign to Fix the Debt. The Campaign has brought together some of the best minds on tax and budget issues, along with business and civic leaders, small-business owners, former Members of Congress and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens who have signed on at FixTheDebt.org. We’re building an organization of people who are tired of the political gridlock and want to see common-sense, bipartisan compromise that would be able to get our national debt to stabilize and put our nation on a better path.
This is what I meant when I said that you can do something about the fiscal mess we’re in. I urge you to visit FixTheDebt.org and to get involved with the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Tell your representatives in Congress that you care about this issue and that you demand a solution. Because if we truly work together, we can fix the debt.
Maya MacGuineas is President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt.