THERE is an economic paradox in this country. While we prepare for the close of what many regard as ''the American Century,'' Americans themselves are angry and in doubt about the future. The main culprit? Washington's inability to balance its own books. Americans overwhelmingly feel an urgent need to balance the budget - in the name of their children.
According to a poll we conducted for The Coalition For Change, 73 percent of Americans say their quality of life is better than their parents', while only 49 percent say their children's generation will be better off. Twenty six percent say their children's quality of life will be worse.
What's notable today is a feeling of hopelessness. Americans 18 to 29 years old, once considered the most optimistic in society, express a higher degree of hopelessness than any other age group.
Many other Americans agree. One in 5 (20 percent) believe the federal budget deficit has reached crisis proportions. Another two-thirds (67 percent) say the deficit is either extremely important (31 percent) or very important (36 percent). Only 11 percent consider it less important.
When it comes to balancing the budget, Washington faces a credibility gap. While nearly 3 in 4 Americans (74 percent) believe that Congress and the White House have the information and power to balance the budget, only 13 percent believe it will happen. It is this sense of missed opportunity that is causing Americans to move from anger to hopelessness as they watch Congress and the White House deal with the budget.
More than half of all Americans (56 percent) say their faith in government would be restored with a balanced budget. Only 20 percent say campaign or lobbying reform would have a similar impact, and 19 percent would have their faith restored with the passage of term limits.
Americans no longer fear the impact of a balanced budget. Reductions in programs they benefit from are outweighed by visions of a country with a stronger economy that will result in more jobs, lower interest rates, and, hopefully, lower taxes.
Statistically, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they personally would be better off under a balanced budget, while only 21 percent think they will be worse off. Even the elderly, who are most dependent on government aid, believe they would be better off if the budget were balanced.
The overwhelming support for a balanced budget comes from the belief that we all must share in the sacrifice.
This idea of equality and fairness - shared by more than 8 in 10 Americans (81 percent) - cuts across all gender, age, education, regional, and political divisions.
Congress may not be prepared to give, but the public is.
People in this country no longer fear a balanced budget. Reductions in benefits are outweighed by visions of a stronger economy.