Nation's debt becomes personal sacrifice issue

Before the election, everyone seemed to agree that taming the bloated federal debt required bold action, but as Washington officials propose specific spending cuts and tax increases, people are struggling with the sacrifices these changes could inflict on them.

Even as a bipartisan debt-busting committee wrangles over the proposals in Washington, metro Atlantans are measuring the potential impact on their lives, and gauging how much -- if anything -- they are willing to give up. Many do not support cuts that would have a direct hit on them or their families. Others say they are willing to pay a personal price to get the nation's debt under control.

"This is a huge societal issue, and if we don't link arms and do something, we're doomed," said Bradford Schwarz, 56, a physician assistant from Lilburn. "We've been walking around the elephant in the room for too long. Now it has gotten too big for the room."

But others say the recession has already exacted more than enough sacrifice, thank you very much.

“I’m one of those people that subscribed to the American Dream of owning your own home and living lavishly," said Rickey Robinson, 40. "And I just filed for bankruptcy.”

Robinson, who lives in Stone Mountain, doesn’t feel he can give up much more. In 2008 he was jobless for about six months, and while he now works as a financial analyst, he never quite caught up on his bills.

Across the board, many find their attitude on the issue tinged by a distrust of Washington. They resent members of Congress for telling them to surrender any more, and they doubt that the squabbling political factions will be able to agree on real, meaningful reductions.

"We are suffering from a deficiency of good leadership. Nobody is willing to make these cuts," said Jere Brower, who left the Army early this year and hasn't found work. He is willing to pay slightly more in taxes if Congress reduces spending, but he worries that the increased tax revenue would go to waste.

"You give them more money. They then pass stimulus taxes and bail-outs," said Brower, 35. "Stimulate what? What did you stimulate? Obviously not me."

President Barack Obama's debt commission remains divided largely along political lines as it prepares to vote today on such explosive issues as raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits, slashing Medicare and military spending and curtailing popular tax breaks such as the mortgage interest deduction. To send the proposals to Congress for immediate action, the panel's leaders must get 14 of its 18 members to agree -- a difficult proposition these days in Washington, even on matters much less fraught with the potential for political blow-back.

But the widely reported debate has focused many people's attention on the $13.7 trillion national debt and opened a public debate on the hard choices reducing it will entail. More than mere trims around the edges of the federal budget, economists say major reductions are required in bedrock federal programs, which could affect virtually every resident of metro Atlanta.

Opinions differ greatly on the right thing to do.

Brower, the unemployed veteran, said budget-cutters should set their sights on military spending, which he believes is excessive. But Joe LaBranche, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who lives in Cumming, fears that allocating less to defense would "just weaken ourselves."

Moreover, LaBranche worries that the cuts would find their way to the VA medical facility in Atlanta, which he depends on for his medical care. He said it is already stressed to deliver the services vets need.

"One of my hearing aids broke, and I called in October," said LaBranche, 64. " They gave me an appointment for Dec. 22."

The former machine gunner, who drove a school bus before he retired after two heart attacks, doesn't find much in the proposals to agree with. Raising the Social Security retirement age will only create more jobless senior citizens, he said. A 15-cent-a-gallon increase on gasoline is just the government "taxing us to death." And a three-year freeze on federal workers' pay could damage the quality of the workforce. If anything, the members of Congress should freeze their own salaries for three years, he said.

Schwarz, the physician assistant, is more amenable to certain proposals, such as raising the retirement age. "We all have to make concessions," he said. Medicare and Medicaid could use some cuts, especially with an eye toward "what procedures are really necessary," he said.

"Some people have a Medicaid mentality," he said. "They collect a disability [payment] when they are able-bodied."

Health care and real estate have been powerful economic engines in metro Atlanta, but each would be affected by debt-reduction proposals now on the table.

Anna Kilinski, a realtor with Keller Williams in Atlanta, is most concerned about proposals to limit mortgage interest deductions for mortgages greater than a certain amount. She believes such changes would remove the greatest incentive for people to buy a home instead of renting, signaling the death knell for her already battered and bruised industry.

“As a realtor, the tax deduction is greatly tied to the success realtors are able to see in any market,” she said. “It’s a financial tax shelter for buyers.”

Meanwhile, changes to Medicare and Medicaid, especially cuts in the payments made to doctors, could make life harder for doctors and patients alike.

Dr. Susan Margletta, a family physician in Norcross, said significant cuts in Medicare payments  would lead her to stop accepting business from Medicare patients.

At the same time, she is willing to work more years before receiving Social Security benefits, she said, believing that "we are all living longer."

She recognizes that she is financially better off than many people and can better absorb any sacrifice. In any case,  she sees it coming.

"We plan on paying higher taxes," Margletta said. "We're not happy about it, though."