Knowledge Network Explorer / Education First

Look Who's Footing the Bill!

An Introductory WebQuest on Democracy and the National Debt

Introduction | The Task | The Process | Conclusion | HyperText Dictionary


You! That's who's going to foot the bill. At least you will be in the future with the United States' national debt at over 5 trillion dollars (that's a five with 12 zeros after it!)

Why are you kids the ones who will have to pay for it? Simple, because adults don't feel like it. Are you getting angry yet?

What about this: we could clear the debt right now if we all just pitched in. You know, dug deep into our piggy banks, gave up a couple goodies, maybe saved our lunch money for a few days... Yeah, right. Have you got $20,000 in your savings? You don't mind not going to college or not buying your own home someday do you? Do you plan on skipping lunch for the next 18 years? At $3.00 per lunch day-in and day-out that's what it would take. How about now? Are you getting angry yet?

Do you want to do something about it? Welcome to democracy! Now let's get busy.

Tip: You might want to open the bold links on this page with a new browser window so you can always get back to these instructions easily. To get a new browser window for the link just hold down on the link instead of clicking, then look in the pop-up window for something that says "Open Link in New Window" or "Open with New Browser."

The Task

Through "Look Who's Paying the Bill!" you and your friends will learn more about the national debt and take action to let the people representing you know what you want them to do. The following steps give you an overview of what you and your teammates will be doing for this Look Who's Footing the Bill! WebQuest:

  1. Work as a group to guesstimate how to apportion the U.S. budget.

  2. Divide your group members into three roles:
    • Number Cruncher
    • Fact Checker
    • Budget Director
    Note: you might want to work in pairs for each role.

  3. Write a group letter that brings together all you've learned.

  4. Send the letter to your representative in the United States Congress.

The Process

With your group of three to six people working together, the following activity might start to look like a three-ring-circus. Don't worry; it works as long as you don't act like a clown (that's a joke). If you have enough computers around, a little less juggling might be involved, but either way some of what each role does is online (using the computer) and some is done offline (working at your desks, on the floor, climbing the wall...).

The following step-by-step process will guide your group through the whole "Look Who's Paying the Bill!" activities.

Your Turn

As a starting point, your group needs to come to agreement as to how the U.S. Budget should be divided or apportioned.

  1. Go to the Balance the Budget Game called Debt Distortion from Third Millennium.

  2. Print out the page so you can fiddle with having your percentages total 100.

  3. Discuss with your group members how you think the U.S. government should slice up the budget money pie. Remember that compromise and give-and-take are a part of working together. This activity shouldn't create a war, but generate a good discussion and a shared vision.

  4. Once you've entered your amounts and clicked the "Submit Your Budget Projections" button, print out the results. If you don't have access to a printer, then you should write down the amounts (both yours and the government's) for each category.

Number Cruncher

Your first job is to get an accurate reading of the national debt at the present moment, so:
  1. Go to The U.S. National Debt Clock and record the exact amount of the debt and the exact time. (Note: if the time is not correct, press your browser's reload button to update the clock.)

  2. When you're finished writing that info down, press the reload button on your browser.

  3. Write down the new amount and the time.

  4. Figure out how much time passed between the first time you checked the Debt Clock and when you reloaded it. (Note: You might want to round to the nearest minute.)

  5. Figure out the change in the debt from the first time you checked it.

  6. Divide the amount of debt in #5 above by the time that passed (#4) to find out how much the National Debt increased in one minute.

  7. Read What Does the Debt Cost Us? by the Concord Coalition.

  8. Create your own list of what could have been bought that you value using the amount the national debt increased in one minute. You can use guesstimates and ask people, use catalogs, newspapers, etc.

  9. Save this list to use in your group's letter to your congressional representative.

Fact Checker

Your main job is to find out a lot about the budget debt and then get E-mail and snail mail addresses for the representatives in the U.S. Congress who serve your area.

  1. Read through the articles from the Concord Coalition that are linked below (of course they can be printed out to save computer time). More detailed and extensive essays are available in the section called Further Readings.

  2. Write down or copy/paste an average of the three most important points from each article you read. Feel free to discuss them with your partners if they are available.

  3. Look over the information you thought was especially important. Write a one sentence opinion statement (also known as a thesis statement) that says what you feel should be done about the situation.

  4. Use one or all of the following links to help you find out about your representatives and how to contact them. If possible get both email and snail mail addresses.

Budget Director

The main job of the Budget Director is to take the results of your group's try at balancing the budget and swap your group's values with those of the current U.S. budget to see how your version would work out.

  1. Get the results from your group's try at balancing the budget with the Debt Distortion page.

  2. Go to the National Budget Simulation.

  3. Use your group's Debt Distortion results as a guide. Not all the categories match with those in the National Budget Simulation and things are tough to line up because now you're using percentages to increase or decrease, but give it your best and get as close to your group's values as you can.

  4. Notice that you also get to adjust Tax Expenditures, that is the amount the government pays back to people and companies.

  5. When you're all set, press the "find out what the budget is" button.

  6. Print out this page as it is full of very useful information about how your group's budget compares to the real thing. You will use this information in your letter to your congresspersons.

Democracy in Action

Are you still angry? For sure you're informed! You and your teammates have learned a lot by dividing up into three different roles. Now's the time to share with each other what you've learned. Together you will write letters that contain ideas, information, and perspectives that you've gained. Here's the process:

  1. The Fact Checkers share the opinion statement they have come up with. Then they share the nine important points they copied down from the articles.

  2. The Number Crunchers share how much they figured out the debt increased in one minute. Then they share the list of what would be better to spend the money on.

  3. The Budget Directors share the results of Budget Simulation, showing in particular how the group's budget did compared to the actual U.S. budget.

  4. The Fact Checkers share the E-mail and snail mail addresses they have found for the group's congressional representatives.

  5. The group takes action! Each individual or pair that took one of the three roles now writes a letter to a different person: one of the two U.S. Senators or the House Representative (so that's a total of three).

  6. The best thing is if the Fact Checkers were able to find both snail mail and E-mail address for all three representatives so you can try an experiment: send each representative both kinds of mail (snail and E-) so you can see which gets a better response (the idea is that regular letters, hand-written and mailed through the postal service get more attention). Let's put the idea to a real test!

  7. Remember, no matter what role you took, your letter(s) need to have the following parts:
    • Opinion about what should be done (your own)
    • reasons drawn from articles (info from the Fact Checker)
    • Sample buget cuts from simulations (info from the Budget Director)
    • Better use of the money from student perspectives (info from the Number Cruncher)

    For Further Reading


    So maybe you got angry about the mess the government has gotten us into with the national debt. Wait a minute. Did the government get us into it? Or did U.S. citizens groove to the "Don't Worry - Be Happy" melody the politicians were singing? Remember we live in a democracy where every citizen over 18 years of age can cast his or her vote. Maybe all that happened is what the wit H. L. Mencken said would:

    "Democracy is the theory
    that the common people know what they want
    and deserve to get it good and hard."

    But you all did something most people don't: you became informed and actively involved in communicating your opinions to your elected officials. Do you feel as powerful as you are? You should. Remember this as you explore more aspects of democracy.

    Education First - Pacific Bell - SDSU Last revised May 18th, 1998
    Created by the Education First Fellows,
    Applications Design Team/Wired Learning
    Copyright © 1996 Pacific Bell -- All Rights Reserved