Grade 9-12

Taxation and the National Debt

Time: 100 mins,
Updated: December 28 2020,


Students will be able to:

  • Describe and analyze the purpose of taxation and how it relates to the national debt.

In this economics lesson, students analyze arguments concerning income and corporate taxes and how they impact the national debt.


Does Debt Matter?

Supporting Questions

  1. Where does the Federal debt come from?
  2. What do the experts say about Federal debt?


Prior Knowledge

It is important to note that this inquiry requires prerequisite knowledge of the federal budgetary process. Additionally, students would benefit from having discussed federal government programs, policies, and expenditures. These programs, together with an understanding of taxation and other forms of revenue will provide the context to look at deficit spending and the current federal debt.

Staging the Compelling Question

The US Debt Clock began as a billboard in downtown Manhattan in 1989. It can be a striking resource for students to begin to comprehend the size and scope of the federal debt. It contains so many details, a three-minute silent reflection will allow students to begin to formulate questions beyond the initial shock. After the silent activity, a teacher-facilitated discussion will bring the class into a space for the focused inquiry to begin. The two supporting questions that follow will allow students to develop claims to answer some of their questions.

Supporting Question 1: Where Does Federal Debt Come From?

The formative performance task is to create a chart of the changes in spending and revenue. Using the 2011 U.S. Budget Infographic and 2018 U.S. Budget Infographic from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a non-partisan federal agency within the legislative branch, students will see specific changes in the growing debt. Charting these changes, they can begin to create their own answers to whether these deficits are a cause of concern, and what possible solutions there might be.

Other infographics and reports on yearly budgets can be found on the CBO’s website. Students can spend further time on this site to measure and investigate further the annual budgets and future projections. For a wider inquiry in fiscal policy and budgetary decisions, this is a rich resource.

Supporting Question 2: What Do the Experts Say About the Federal Debt?

The formative task is to construct a 2-3 sentences to summarize what the various economists have said. Students will watch a clip of Milton Friedman discussion. Afterwards, they will read The National Debt is Still a Problem, Who’s afraid of the Budget Deficit, and Modern Monetary Theory.  This allows students to practice their historic and economic skills of analysis and summary. With four distinct viewpoints, students can then begin to craft their argument, answering the compelling question.

Scaffolds and other materials (e.g. guided questions, graphic organizers, etc.) may be used to support students as they work with sources. Students may struggle with some of the economic language and concept. The sources made be watched or read together as a class to break down the language and concepts?


Students should be expected to demonstrate the breadth of their understanding and their abilities to use evidence from multiple sources to support their claims. In the summative performance task, students construct an evidence-based argument that addresses the compelling question. It is important to note that students’ arguments could take a variety of forms.


Activity 1

To extend their arguments, students can split into the various economic approaches to the federal deficit and debt. They can do further research into the featured economists and others in their economic schools. With this bolstered analysis and information, they can engage in a class debate over the approaches, providing arguments and rebuttals. This will further, with the inquiry itself, give students a broader understanding of current economic and budgetary policy.