The United States of debt

$12,992,539,130,957.22.

According to the U.S. Department of The Treasury, this was the national debt of the United States as of May 28. Twelve trillion, nine-hundred ninety-two billion, five-hundred thirty-nine million, one-hundred thirty thousand, nine-hundred fifty-seven dollars and twenty-two cents. (Without interest.)

Harris Sokoloff, an adjunct associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and founder and director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, says America’s growing debt is threatening the country’s ability to fund social initiatives, the military, and programs that improve our quality of life.

“It’s not just the debt, it’s the amount of interest we must pay the lenders,” he adds. “High levels of debt can crowd out our other priorities as we have to pay back the interest. This could mean it could become harder for young people to get student loans, or families to get mortgages, or for companies large and small to hire workers.”

On Saturday, June 26, the Penn Project for Civic Engagement is co-chairing the AmericaSpeaks “Our Budget, Our Economy” National Town Meeting, a non-partisan forum to engage the public in a conversation about the federal budget and debt, and to discuss national priorities and the tough choices Americans must make to ensure the country’s future. Scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at First District Plaza, 3801 Market St., Sokoloff says the meeting will be one in which “the loudest voice doesn’t win.”

“It’s a matter of public deliberation and discussion to see where we can reach common ground about what we are and are not willing to do,” he says.

Similar town meetings will be held simultaneously in 17 other cities and all the sites will be linked electronically. “Whatever is learned in one city will be shared with the others and will become part of the deliberation every place,” Sokoloff says.

The goal, Sokoloff says, is for the meetings to generate a set of common-ground priorities that will inform the work of the president and Congress. Despite the heightened partisan rancor that has recently plagued U.S. politics, Sokoloff says he is confident that Americans can set aside their differences and come together for the betterment of the country.

“I am an optimist about this stuff,” he explains. “I believe that when people of goodwill come together, they can figure out where they agree and where they disagree, and figure out a way of building on their agreements across disagreements.”

The public is invited to the town meeting, but registration is required and seating is limited. To register, call 866-755-6263 or visit USABudgetDiscussion.org.

Originally published June 10, 2010

Originally published on June 10, 2010