A Word Problem

I have been trying to comprehend the issues around the current US budget crisis.  I’ve been trying to read about the deficit and how to cope with it. I’ve been listening to a whole cadre of economists as they debate the best way to lower the deficit, the importance of the deficit, the meaning of the deficit and the consequences of the deficit.

To quote the kids in my class, “I still don’t get it.”

So I have decided to try converting the information into a word problem.  I will attempt to solve that problem using the time honored strategies of good math teachers: I will identify what I know, identify the question being asked, highlight the key words and try to solve the problem.


“The US Government is showing a budget deficit of 1.066 Trillion dollars.  The Government earns its money through taxes, trade and fees.  It spends money on a huge variety of services, including education, defense, health, infrastructure maintenance and diplomacy.   How can the US Government eradicate the deficit?”

What I know:  1)  the US budget deficit for 2011 will be 1.066 Trillion dollars (whoah. that’s a lot of zeros!!) 2) the government receives 18.6% of its earnings from taxes (both individual and corporate)  This is .2% lower than it was in 2007.   3) money raised from individual taxes  increased by 321.3 Billion dollars from 2007 to 2011.  4) money raised from corporate taxes  decreased by 13.4 Billion dollars in that same period. (REALLY?)  5) the top tax bracket in the US was 92% in 1952 and 1953 (I know those years! Those were the years of prosperity!! Jobs were being created all over the place, we were at peace, building was booming.)  6) the top tax bracket in the US now is 35%, as it has been since 2004.

I can just hear the conversation in my classroom.

“Well, we should stop spending so much money!”

“Yeah! And we need more money from taxes.”

“Yup.  We can ask the top tax bracket to pay some more, like they used to do.”

“Wait, who is “the top tax bracket” anyway?”

“Boys and girls, those are people who make more than 373,650 dollars each year.”

“Wow!  That’s a lot, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Well, what percent do other people pay?”

“If a person makes 82,400 dollars,  he pays 28% in taxes.”

“Huh? I don’t get it!  The rich guy makes four times as much money as the other guy, but he only pays 7% more to help the country?”

I know my fifth graders. I know what they would say.

“HEY! That’s not fair!”

Some word problems defy easy answers, but this one just might make sense.

(I got these figures from the US.gov website).


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