2020 Election Toolkit | Peter G. Peterson Foundation

Voters' Fiscal Guide: Your Fiscal and Economic Headquarters for the 2020 Election

An Election-year Guide to America’s Fiscal and Economic Landscape

As we confront a global pandemic with devastating impacts on America’s health, economy and society, an effective federal response — including substantial fiscal support — is necessary to help ease suffering and get our economy back on track. However, once the crisis is over, we must begin to address America’s unsustainable fiscal outlook. Building a more stable fiscal foundation will help ensure a stronger, better prepared and more resilient economy in the future.

Key Issues For The 2020 Campaign

This campaign season is a valuable opportunity for a conversation between candidates and voters about a better path forward for America. Building a brighter future for the next generation has been the central principle behind the Foundation’s work since its inception. The high cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the growing debt burden that comes with it, only reinforces the urgency of pursuing fiscal solutions and managing our debt once the crisis is behind us.

How the Pandemic Has Affected Our Fiscal and Economic Landscape

As our nation continues to respond to COVID-19, the 2020 campaign season presents an important opportunity for discussion and debate about America’s fiscal and economic future.

The coronavirus pandemic remains an unprecedented national emergency with devastating ongoing effects on America’s health, economy and society. A strong, sustained and targeted federal response – including substantial fiscal support – is both necessary and appropriate to help ease suffering and get our economy back on track.

America also entered this crisis with $23 trillion in national debt and trillion-dollar annual deficits growing as far as the eye can see. Now, our public debt will equal the size of our economy before the end of the year — we thought we had at least 10 years to reach that unfortunate milestone, yet it is now on our doorstep.

While significant federal fiscal stimulus is a necessary response to the pandemic, it comes with a cost of its own. Once the pandemic is under control and our economy is in recovery, we need to commit ourselves to addressing America’s fiscal outlook to ensure a stronger, more resilient economy. Our unsustainable fiscal policy will harm our capacity to respond to unexpected emergencies in the future. As we steward the nation for the next generation, we all share a responsibility to make sure America is better prepared.

An Unsustainable Path — Even Before the Pandemic

America has been on an unsustainable fiscal path for many years, since long before this pandemic. Our federal budget has structural problems, driven by well-known and predictable factors, including an aging population, rising healthcare costs and compounding interest — along with insufficient revenues to meet our commitments.

The Growing Debt is Caused by a Structural Mismatch Between Spending and Revenues

Federal Debt is on an Unsustainable Path

Net Interest Costs Are Projected To Rise Sharply

The Elderly Population Is Growing Rapidly and Living Longer

COVID has Accelerated America's Fiscal Challenges

The COVID crisis has piled on to our already daunting fiscal challenges. Response legislation critical to combatting this crisis will add trillions to the debt, and the significant slowdown of the economy will further increase the deficit, because revenues will be lower.

Debt Has Increased Rapidly Since the End of March

The Federal Deficit Is Projected to Drastically Increase in 2020

The Pandemic Has Let to a Reduction in the Size of the Economy

CBO's Latest Projections Show That the COVID-19 Pandemic Will Worsen Our Fiscal Trajectory

Why Debt Matters

The COVID crisis has piled on to our already daunting fiscal challenges. Response legislation critical to combatting this crisis will add trillions to the debt, and the significant slowdown of the economy will further increase the deficit, because revenues will be lower.

So, Why Does The National Debt Matter?

High and growing debt matters because it reduces our flexibility to plan for and respond to urgent crises.

Debt matters because growing interest costs make it harder for us to invest in our future — to build and sustain infrastructure, enhance education and support an economy that creates job growth and rising wages.

Debt matters because it threatens the safety net — critical programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP and Unemployment Compensation are essential lifelines for our most vulnerable populations.

Debt matters because America faces emerging and ongoing challenges that will require resources to keep our country safe and strong — challenges like climate change, affordable health care, international conflicts and an increasingly complex and competitive global economy — that will require significant investments.

Debt matters because we care about our children and grandchildren — borrowing more and more today reduces the opportunities and prosperity of the next generation.

Fiscal Responsibility is About: Preparedness

We can't always predict, so we must prepare.

America’s fiscal health and economic strength are inextricably linked. The United States has debt that will soon exceed the size of the entire economy, and grow from there, reducing our ability to invest in areas that provide the jobs and growth that define the middle class.

Right now, we’re spending nearly $1 billion every day on interest on the debt. Over the next ten years, the interest tab will total nearly $4 trillion — and it will more than double every ten years from there.

Rising interest crowds out priorities like education, infrastructure and scientific research — key engines of growth and prosperity for our nation. Interest payments are paying for our past when what we need to do is plan and invest for our future.

A sustainable fiscal outlook supports vibrant economic growth over the long term, with rising wages and greater opportunity, productivity and mobility. Putting our nation on a sustainable fiscal path creates a positive environment for growth, with increased access to capital, more resources for future public and private investments, improved consumer and business confidence, and a stronger safety net.

Fiscal Responsibility is About: Economic Opportunity and Jobs

Today's debt threatens tomorrows economy.

None of us can say what the next major test of our nation will be — whether it’s an economic downturn, a national security threat, a climate disaster, another pandemic, or some other crisis. But as a wealthy nation, and with people’s lives and livelihoods in the balance, we must do more to prepare for the unexpected.

Preparedness includes determining national priorities — and finding ways to pay for them. It means making smart investments that have benefits to our economy over time. It means investing in our national security so that we can address new global threats, like cyber attacks. It means having stockpiles of essential supplies, so we are prepared for the unexpected. It means strengthening our safety net to help support and sustain the most vulnerable in society.

The truth is that we can’t adequately prepare for the future without a solid fiscal foundation. A sustainable budget will ensure that we have sufficient resources, in good times and bad, to meet the needs of our citizens and cope with whatever future challenges we may face.

Fiscal Responsibility is About: The Next Generation

A moral obligation to the next generation.

The next generation will know debt like no other. Personally, they are burdened by record student debt. But they are also entering the workforce during a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty, in a nation with crumbling infrastructure, a climate in crisis, rising inequality and racial injustice.

At the same time, they will inherit an unwelcome and costly legacy in the form of America’s $27 trillion — and rising — national debt.

We are morally obligated to ensure the next generation is able to define their own path, to control their own destiny and choose their own policies, without the burden of forever paying for our own current needs. A just and moral America is founded on the principle that we leave the next generation better off — with the financial freedom to decide how to direct their own future resources in the most effective, equitable and prosperous way.

Our fiscal capability is the foundation that creates opportunity for the next generation.

Moving Forward

The 2020 election is occurring in a deeply painful and difficult moment in American history. We face a range of complex, unprecedented health, economic and societal challenges, set against the backdrop of a poor fiscal outlook that was irresponsible and unsustainable to begin with.

Building a brighter future for the next generation is an essential priority for America, and the high cost of this crisis only makes that challenge more urgent. Once we have emerged from the pandemic, it will be more important than ever for our leaders to address our fiscal outlook and manage our debt, to ensure that America is more prepared, better positioned for growth, and able to meet our moral obligation to future generations.

Download a PDF of our 2020 Election Toolkit

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that is dedicated to increasing public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America's future, and to accelerating action on them. To address these challenges successfully, we work to bring Americans together to find and implement sensible, long-term solutions that transcend age, party lines and ideological divides in order to achieve real results.

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