MAYBE some Americans don't care about the federal debt. But Trude Powell does. Five days after the April 16 deadline for federal income taxes, she set up a booth at a fashionable mall in Austin, Texas, and asked people to contribute money to reduce the debt.
Madeleine Zabel of Sequim, Wash., cares, too. In the past four years, she and her husband have contributed about $400 annually to a special debt-reduction fund of the US Treasury. ``If we spent as much time being grateful as we do in trying to avoid paying taxes, there wouldn't be this debt,'' Ms. Zabel says.
Many Americans are concerned about the red ink flowing from their government; it ranks regularly in Gallup surveys as being among the top 10 issues of public concern. The Business Roundtable has called it the nation's most pressing problem since 1984. Yet the immensity of the problem and the inaction in Washington have made many people feel helpless.
``People are more aware of the situation and, really, they don't know what to do about it,'' says Kay Fishburn, national coordinator of Citizens for a Debt-Free America, a network of grass-roots groups, based in New Berlin, Wis.
``I sense a lot of real anger and frustration,'' adds Alan Keyes, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a citizen-action group based in Washington, D.C. ``There's a sense that nobody in Washington is really doing very much about this problem or cares very much.''
Grass-roots movements to reduce the federal debt and deficit are small but growing. Mr. Keyes's group has seen membership soar from 8,000 in 1987 to some 350,000 today. In less than a month, more than 400 people have requested information on how to form ``government waste patrols,'' or public-education groups.
``I see the federal deficit and it's really frightening to me,'' says Brendan McCrudden, a college sophomore who wants to form a patrol here in Chicago. ``I am trying spread the word a little bit.''
Even more remarkable are the people donating to the US Treasury's Public Debt Reduction Fund. Through February of this fiscal year (which began Oct. 1), Americans have donated $1.3 million to reduce the debt.
``It's a real strong showing,'' says Peter Hollenbach, spokesman for the Bureau of the Public Debt. Giving is nonpartisan. In 1985, donations reached a record $2.2 million, thanks in large part to a $1 million gift from President Reagan's inaugural committee. Last year, four Democratic US congressmen supported the fund. Donations total about $17 million since the fund was started in 1961.
Of course, that sum pales in comparison to the actual debt, which as of March 31 stood at $3,051,956 million - a little more than $3 trillion.
``Everyone thinks you're nuts when you start talking about paying the debt off,'' says Pat Propst, owner of a small steel business in Bristol, Va. But, he adds, ``I have to believe that the country will be coming to its senses at some time.''
At least two obstacles stand in the way of a broad-based movement taking root.
For one, as long as people believe government wastes their money, they are unlikely to support deficit reduction, activists say. Asked in 1981 how much of each tax dollar the federal government wasted, a majority of Americans in a Gallup poll answered 42 cents.
This perception of waste shows up in other polling data, says Tom W. Smith, a survey researcher at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Americans say they are willing to spend more for specific government actions, such as cleaning up the environment and improving education. But they reject a general tax increase.
``In the public mind all of this makes sense,'' Mr. Smith says, because Americans think government can trim enough waste to afford more worthy causes.
Another problem is leadership.
``You don't expect people to rise up and say: `We are going to give this for the long term,''' says Charles Schultze, who was chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers under Jimmy Carter. ``That's precisely what you have leaders for.''
So far, leaders have ducked the issue. Mr. Propst has written letters asking former Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to get behind deficit reduction - without avail.
``It's not a motherhood issue,'' Smith explains. ``You can make political points by fighting drugs and that's it. You can't do the same with the deficit. You have to fight the deficit as part of a package'' of reform.