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This obscure program lets Americans donate to help pay off the national debt

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A deal is within sight to resolve the fight over the nation's debt. The White House and Republicans are working out the details on a plan to raise the government's borrowing limit for two years. In return, Republican lawmakers would get some cuts to federal spending.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

But negotiations are not over yet, and time is running out. Earlier today, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the U.S. will run out of money to pay its bills by June 5.

SHAPIRO: Now, while debt talks tend to center around Washington's power players, some everyday Americans have also done their part to resolve the nation's debt by donating their own money to the United States government. Wailin Wong and Adrian Ma from our daily economics podcast, The Indicator, tell us about an obscure government program that collects donations from citizens.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: For almost as long as there's been a United States, there have been Americans who want to give money to the federal government. And I don't just mean paying their fair share of taxes. I'm talking about making a charitable contribution to Uncle Sam.

MATT GARBER: The earliest payment actually goes back to about 1811 during the Madison administration. Some random citizen mailed in five bucks.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: This is Matt Garber. He works at the U.S. Treasury in an office called the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, and what it does is manage money for federal agencies.

WONG: Back then, there wasn't any system in place to accept donations like that $5, which, by the way, would be around $100 today. But the money kept coming in. So in 1843, the government set up an account for what it called gifts to the United States. This was a general all-purpose account.

GARBER: Those funds have evolved over time. Used to be much more physical property - checks, bags of pennies, bags of gold. And really...

WONG: Bags of gold? Can we hear more about these bags of gold?

GARBER: Yes. So there is at least one instance that we're aware of where in a manila envelope wrapped was about $63 in just gold bullion.

MA: And once the Bureau of the Fiscal Service gets this stuff. It has to figure out how to convert it to, you know, U.S. currency so it can be deposited into the government's account.

WONG: Now, for this general gifts to the government fund, there wasn't a way for donors to specify how they would like the money to be spent. But then in the 1950s, Matt says patriotic Americans wanted to help the government pay back the money it had borrowed for war efforts.

GARBER: There's this interest in providing funds just as a pure patriotic duty to offset these debts.

MA: So in 1961, the government set up another account, a special account for what it called gifts to reduce the public debt. And it meant that the money in that account could only be used for that purpose. It wouldn't get swallowed up by the general fund.

WONG: So how much money actually flows into this special debt fund? Well, in 2022, the government collected - drumroll, please - $1 million.

MA: Womp-wah.

WONG: Yep, just a million dollars. In 2021, it was around $1.3 million. And the most the fund has ever held was 20 million in 1994. Most of that was a single large contribution from a civic-minded and apparently very wealthy donor.

MA: And even that high watermark of $20 million is a pittance compared to the size of the federal budget. I mean, just last year, the government spent $6 trillion.

WONG: And that says the government wants the debt fund to stay under the radar. It's not an effective way to raise money. So the Treasury does not advertise this program. There is some information about it on the 1040 tax form and a couple of government websites. That's about it.

GARBER: It wasn't supposed to be this massive revenue stream for the federal government. We have lots of other levers that we can pull for that.

WONG: And yet some people keep sending in their cash, whether it's gold bullion or just a few dimes taped to a piece of paper. Wailin Wong.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.