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Donating this year? Uncle Sam needs your help

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You've probably heard about the country's giant debt load - $12 trillion and rising.

Did you know you can help reduce it?

How much would you contribute to pay down the nation's debt?
  • Less than $100
  • More than $100
  • My estate, when I die
  • You've got to be kidding

Under a little-known law enacted in 1961, Uncle Sam accepts tax-deductible contributions to pay down the country's debt.

Not that the Treasury Department does much to publicize the program.

You can find it under the header "Accepting Gifts" in the U.S. Code. Or, if you're not an avid reader of dusty legal books, you can check the FAQ section on the Web site of the Bureau of Public Debt, an agency within Treasury. Or flip to page 91 of the IRS' 2009 Instruction Booklet for Form 1040.

Contributions made are typically small -- under $100. But there have been a few humdingers over the years.

The largest single gift ever made was in 1992 for $3.5 million, said Mckayla Braden, a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Public Debt.

For fiscal year 2009, all donations totaled just over $3 million. That's well more than what was donated in any single year in the decade prior. But it's far less than the nearly $21 million collected in 1994.

The money credited to the "Gifts to Reduce the Public Debt" account in theory reduces the amount of money the government has to borrow to finance its debt. But the dent is not deep or lasting.

"We might have to finance a tiny bit less that week," Braden said.

The nuts and bolts

So who are the folks who send Uncle Sam money of their own volition?

"Usually someone dies and leaves a gift. And many contribute regularly," Braden said. "On average, we get five donations a week."

Sometimes, she said, a large donation is made by an estate but is paid out over a number of years.

The names and addresses of the donors are not released. And blessedly, unlike most charities that reward you for giving by bombarding you with solicitations for more money, Uncle Sam will acknowledge your gift but then never bother you again.

There are two ways to give. One is to send a check directly to the Bureau of Public Debt, an agency within the Treasury Department. The address: Attn: Dept G, Bureau of the Public Debt, P.O. Box 2188, Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188.

The other is to include a check -- separate from any tax payment you make - with your federal income tax return.

Hate writing checks? You soon may be able to donate online. "We are going to make it very easy in the future to make gifts to reduce the public debt through Pay.gov on a regular basis," Braden said. (See correction.)

Would you give?

CNNMoney.com's video team took to the streets of New York to ask random passers-by if they were aware of the program. No one was.

When asked if they'd contribute now that they know, the majority said that wouldn't be happening.

One woman put it this way: "They can use my tax dollars to do that and work it out." One man was a little more blunt. "Hell no. Hell no."

But others weren't so put off.

"I think I could give $10 to $20. And if everyone could do that it would make a good dent in the debt," another woman said. Another man figured he could "help the government out" with a hundred bucks.

Of course, with the national debt at $12 trillion, it would take more than a few $100 contributions to get back to even -- 120 billion of them, in fact.

Some lawmakers say 'institutional insurrection' is needed for Congress to deal with the debt. Here's what they mean.

- CNNMoney.com's Ian Orefice and CNN's Ross Helman contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to incorrect information from the Bureau of the Public Debt, the original version of this article included the wrong online payment site. To top of page

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