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Students Debate US Budget Through Online Game

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Mike O'Sullivan

As a special congressional committee in Washington has been wrestling with ways to reduce the US budget deficit, students in Los Angeles and other American cities have also been tackling the problem.  They have tried to trim government spending through an online game called Budget Hero.

These high school students say playing Budget Hero is showing them how hard it is to cut federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.  That's the challenge Congress faces.

The game was developed in 2008, and in an updated version, students can embrace a set of values to motivate their choices - pursuing efficient government, for example, lowering taxes, safeguarding the environment or promoting national defense.  Using data from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, the game shows the real-life budget impact of every choice they make.

The process is important, says student Dory Bennett.  She says spending cuts are crucial to keep the economy healthy, and the American dream alive. “I want to grow up, go to college, get a good job, have kids maybe, a dog and a house," he said.

Like lawmakers in Washington, the students wrestled with the issues. “A simplified tax code and a tax code that more fairly and correctly taxes the wealth in this country is obviously preferable," said one student.

One former lawmaker gave the students some tips.  Nine-term Congresswoman Jane Harman now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, which co-developed the online game.  More than one million people have played it so far, and she says they've learned two things.

“One, how hard it is, but two, that it can be done if there's a will to do it," she said.

Student Jeffrey Burke agrees that budget cutting isn't easy.

“The hardest thing for us to figure out was the little cuts like the gas money and stuff, increasing taxes on gas, because we felt it would have effects everywhere from the truck drivers shipping our stuff across the country or when you order from [the online retailer] Amazon or whatever, to you drive when you're going to work.  I think we need to look at the little things and realize that just because they're small money doesn't mean they're small effects," he said.

Defense spending really spurred debate, says student budget cutter Harry Kidd.

“Because at the same time, you've got … oh, we're going to freeze military spending, but then we're like, what is that going to do to jobs?  But then the other half was, oh, we can take troops out of Iraq and we all agreed on that," he said.

The broadcaster American Public Media co-developed the budget game, and the man in charge of digital innovation at the media network, Joaquin Alvarado, says many who play online leave a comment.

“And they will literally in the comments ask that Congress play this game to just get a little rational around the questions that have to be answered," he said.

Jane Harman, a Democrat, notes that Congress balanced the federal budget in 1997, when she represented California in Washington… and that these students are having more success than current Members of Congress.

“Kids, and actually adults too who play this game, have open minds.  They want to learn what the facts are.  And sadly, a lot of Congress is a fact-free universe, and that is tragic for our country, for our country's reputation, and for our economy and the livelihoods of millions of people who are presently out of work," she said.

But these students say that after playing Budget Hero, they better understand the challenge facing Congress, and that agreeing what to cut is the hard part.

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