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Grade 9-12

National Security Goals, the Federal Budget, and the National Debt

Time: 90 mins,
Updated: September 27 2019,


Students will be able to:

  • Examine economic data.
  • Assess the costs and benefits of certain economic decisions according to various perspectives.

In this economics lesson, students will examine defense spending to learn how it can influence the economy as a whole.



Print the Teacher Discussion Guide to help as a guide for this lesson. Open the National Security Goals PowerPoint slides and display slide 1. Read this question to students and relay that this is the essential dilemma of the day:

Can the United States make a decision to reduce or modify spending on defense without jeopardizing the country’s security goals?

Explain to students that national security is generally defined as the effort to protect the survival of a country as an independent nation-state with sovereignty over its own affairs. Point out to students that since September 11, 2001, the perceived threat of terrorism has loomed large in Americans’ minds; however, what Americans worry about the most fluctuates with world events and the state of the economy: in a December 2015 poll by Gallup, many Americans identified terrorism as the top issue facing the United States (Riffkin, 2015).

A significant portion of the federal budget is allocated to spending on defense (16% of the 2015 budget, or $602 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [2016]). As the economy continues to struggle and political leaders from both parties agree that the debt and deficit present, at the very least, a long-term threat to economic growth and national security, defense is being added to the list of programs with budgets facing scrutiny.


Divide the students into small groups and ask each group to identify which of the following issues they would judge to be the biggest threat to our national security: foreign terrorism, domestic terrorism, nuclear war, conventional war, unemployment, national debt, climate change, environmental disasters, or illegal immigration.

Ask students within each group to try to reach a consensus about which one presents the greatest challenge to the country’s national security and explain why that issue is the most pressing. Show slide 2 in the PowerPoint deck. To facilitate the discussion, distribute Greatest Challenge to National Security and have students cut the sheet into nine cards, each containing one of the threats. Then, ask the group to rank order the cards to reflect its degree of importance from high to low. When each group has reached an agreement, have each group report their top three, list these on the board, and lead the class in a discussion exploring the choices made by each group and the reasons behind those choices.

Inform students that on August 26, 2010, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, identified the national debt as the single biggest threat to national security. Based on their discussions, ask students to speculate about Mullen’s reasoning behind this statement and why he believes the debt threatens our sovereignty.

Show slide 3 in the PowerPoint deck. Present students with the cartoon Pentagon Cuts and ask them to consider its meaning. After students have studied the cartoon for several minutes, ask students what they notice, drawing them out on the detail of what they see.

Provide students with a copy of National Debt Poses Security Threat, Mullen Says, and ask them to read the article. Depending on students’ reading level, consider defining specialized terms such as procurement, leverage, and fiscal. When the students have finished reading the article, instruct them to work with a partner to answer the questions that follow the article. Refer to the Discussion for potential student responses.

Lead the class in a group discussion guided by the following questions which build on Mullen’s article.

1. The issues raised in the discussion about potential cuts to the United States’ defense budget are often considered “off-limits” by politicians. Why are some politicians reluctant to discuss cuts to defense spending?

Answer: Students’ answers will vary, but may include: Many people are employed by the military and in civilian positions that support the military. Cutting spending could cause these people to lose their jobs. Additionally, politicians are hesitant to appear weak on national defense, because it opens them up for criticism from their political opponents.

2. Sixteen percent of the 2015 federal budget, or $602 billion, was spent on defense (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). What are some arguments for and against allocating that much of the budget to defense?

Answer: Students’ answers will vary, but may include: The high level of defense spending has helped the United States to become the world’s military superpower. Because of our military might, we are in a position to protect our allies and ourselves. However, money spent on the military is money that is not spent on education, poverty, and social programs. Military spending (in addition to other government spending) has also led to budget deficits and added to the national debt.

Group Activity

Inform students that they will read articles that discuss the level of government spending on national defense. Explain that each article represents a different point of view on the issue and that it is important that they understand these perspectives. The arguments they take from these articles will be used to inform their fiscal policy recommendations. Students will participate in what is sometimes called a “jigsaw” to become familiar with the information in each article.

Students will begin work in groups. Divide the class into eight groups. Distribute one of four articles from Excerpts from Four Publications to each group so that there are two groups reading each article. To make classroom management easy, print each article on a different color of paper.

At the end of each article are several questions for the students to discuss and answer as a group. Tell them to read and discuss their article carefully and be ready to explain its point of view to students in other groups. When the students fully understand the article and have answered the questions, form new groups of four students each so that each new group has an “explainer” (an expert) for each of the articles. Ask the explainers to teach their article to others in the group. As the students discuss these articles, walk from group to group, answering questions and verifying student comprehension. The answers to the four readings in Excerpts from Four Publications are found in the Teacher Discussion Guide.

After the small groups are familiar with all four articles, lead a class discussion guided by the questions in the Teacher Discussion Guide to further assess students’ understanding. Encourage students to cite evidence from the readings to support their views about each question.


Instruct students to write a brief essay based on the following situation. Write the following on the board:

Imagine you are a member of the President’s economic advisory committee. The economy is just emerging from a recession, and many are concerned that the recovery will falter and slip back into decline. The President has asked you for an opinion about military spending. Will you recommend that military spending be increased or decreased? The President expects you to take the arguments on both sides of the issue into consideration when you present your own point of view. The committee has research assistants that you are expected to use. What else would you want to know before making your recommendation?

Though their answers will vary, students should identify the points of view in the lesson they find most persuasive and be realistic about what more they would need to know in order to speak with authority.


Activity 1

Open the National Debt as a National Security Threat Slides and project the slide to the class. Display the following statement made by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the increasing national debt as a national security threat. Ask students to give examples of how the increasing debt affects us in the two ways Clinton suggests: domestically and internationally.