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National Debt by Year

Compared to GDP, Recessions and Other Major Events

By

Presidents Bush and Obama

President Barack Obama listens as President George W. Bush (L) speaks during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House January 16, 2010.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The U.S. national debt breached a record $17 trillion on October 17 2013, greater than the economic output of the entire country. This was right after the government shutdown ended and the debt ceiling was raised. Democrats and Republicans ended the stalemate by forming a budget conference committee to try and agree on how to lower the debt. This debt crisis has been ongoing since 2011, when the U.S. headed toward a debt default, and continued with the fiscal cliff crisis in 2012.

However, you can't look at a country's national debt in isolation. Sometimes expansionary fiscal policy, such as increased spending or tax cuts, is needed to spur the economy out of recession. Other times, the U.S. must increase military spending to respond to national threats.

For those reasons, the national debt by year should be compared to the size of the economy as measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This gives you the debt to GDP ratio, which you can use to compare the national debt to other countries. It also give you an idea of how likely the country is to pay the debt back. By spurring economic growth, the government spending or tax cuts that created the debt can reduce it in later years. That's because a growing economy will produce more tax revenues to pay back the debt. For more, see Supply-side Economics.

There are other national events that can increase the debt. For example, the debt grew after the 9/11 attacks as the country increased military spending to launch the War on Terror. Between FY 2001-FY 2009, it cost $850 billion. This was in addition to the everyday spending needed to maintain the Department of Defense, Homeland Security or the Veterans Administration. For details, see War on Terror Facts.

The debt is compared to GDP and national events since 1929 in the table below. Please note that the debt and GDP are given as of the end of the third quarter (September 30) in each year to coincide with the fiscal year. That's the best way to accurately determine how spending in each fiscal year contributes to the debt, and to compare it to economic growth. (However, GDP in the years up to 1947 are not available for the third quarter, so year end figures are used.) Here are some highlights.

Resources for Table

National Debt by Year Since 1929 Compared to Nominal GDP and Major Events

End of Fiscal Year Debt (in billions) GDP (in billions) Debt/GDP Ratio Event
2013 $16,738 $16,913 in Q3 99% Sequestration reduced government spending, at the same time the end of Obama's payroll tax holiday raised revenue. The debt hit $17 trillion a few days after the end of the fiscal year.
2012 $16,066 $16,356 98% Obama extended Bush tax cuts, combined with $900 billion in defense spending.
2011 $14,790 $15,612 95% Obama Stimulus Act (ARRA) spent $120 billion.
2010 $13,562 $15,050 90% ARRA budgeted $400 billion. For more, see National Debt Under Obama.
2009 $11,910 $14,384 83% Economy contracted 8.9% in Q4 '08, 6.7% in Q1 '09, lowering tax revenues. ARRA spent $241.9 billion. War on Terror cost $79 billion. Fed funds rate lowered to 0%.
2008 $10,025 $14,844 68% Economy contracted 3.7% in Q3 '08, 1.8% in Q1 '08. War on Terror cost $197.6 billion, Bank Bailout Bill cost $350 billion.
2007 $9,008 $14,572 62% Iraq War cost $131.6 billion.
2006 $8,507 $13,911 61% Katrina clean-up was $24.7 billion, swine flu added $6 billion, War on Terror cost $120.4 billion. Ben Bernanke became Fed Chair.
2005 $7,933 $13,207 60% War on Terror cost $107.6 billion.
2004 $7,379 $12,369 60% War on Terror was $94 billion.
2003 $6,783 $11,628 58% Unemployment still at 6%. War on Terror cost $53 billion.
2002 $6,228 $11,040 56% War on Terror added $33.8 billion.
2001 $5,807 $10,644 55%  9/11 attacks worsened the 2011 recession.  Bush tax cuts further reduced revenue.
2000 $5,674 $10,364 55%  
1999 $5,656 $9,719 58%  
1998 $5,526 $9,147 60%  
1997 $5,413 $8,692 62%  
1996 $5,225 $8,159 64%  
1995 $4,974 $7,707 65%  
1994 $4,693 $7,352 64%  
1993 $4,411 $6,904 64%  
1992 $4,065 $6,587 62%  
1991 $3,665 $6,218 59% 1991 recession.
1990 $3,233 $6,030 54% Desert Storm.
1989 $2,857 $5,712 50% Savings and Loan Crisis cost $125 billion.
1988 $2,602 $5,300 49%  
1987 $2,350 $4,901 48% Alan Greenspan become Fed Chair.
1986 $2,125 $4,620 46% President Reagan lowered tax rates.
1985 $1,828 $4,395 42%  
1984 $1,572 $4,087 38%  
1983 $1,377 $3,692 37% Unemployment from the 1982 recession peaked at 10.8%.
1982 $1,142 $3,367 34% 1982 recession, GDP fell 6.4% in Q1 '82.
1981 $998 $3,261 31% Beginning of 1982 recession.
1980 $908 $2,860 32% 1980 recession, Iran oil embargo, GDP fell 7.9% in Q2 '80.
1979 $827 $2,670 31% Volcker became Fed Chair, increasing Fed funds rate to 20% to combat inflation.
1978 $772 $2,399 32%  
1977 $699 $2,122 33%  
1976 $620 $1,891 33%  
1975 $533 $1,714 31% Unemployment from 1973-75 recession peaked at 9% in May, GDP was down 4.8% in Q1 '75.
1974 $475 $1,563 30% Fed raised rates to 13% to fight inflation. Nixon resigned over Watergate.
1973 $458 $1,437 32% OPEC raised oil prices. Nixon went off gold standard, tripling inflation to 9.7%. Fed doubled interest rates. Vietnam War ended.
1972 $427 $1,294 33% Nixon won re-election in a landslide.
1971 $398 $1,180 34% Nixon imposed wage price controls and suspended gold standard. Unemployment from 1970 recession peaked at 6.1% in December
1970 $371 $1,089 34% GDP down 4.2% in Q4 '70.  Arthur Burns becomes Fed Chair.
1969 $354 $1,032 34% Nixon became President.
1968 $348 $952 36% Johnson sent 500,000 troops to Vietnam.
1967 $326 $867 38% LBJ created PBS, Product Safety Commission and Air Quality Act.
1966 $320 $821 39% Fed raised interest rates to 5.76% to fight  a mild 3.5% inflation.
1965 $317 $750 42% Johnson funds Great Society, creating Medicare, Medicaid and HUD. Sends 100,000 troops to Vietnam. War's total cost will be $111 billion.
1964 $312 $693 45% LBJ announces War on Poverty.
1963 $306 $645 47% Military coup in Vietnam, aided by 16,000 U.S. advisers. Kennedy assassinated.
1962 $299 $610 49% Cuban Missile Crisis.
1961 $289 $568 51% JFK became President.  Bay of Pigs. Unemployment peaked at 6.1% in Dec.
1960 $286 $546 52% 1960 recession started in April. GDP fell 4.2% in Q4 '60.
1959 $285 $525 54% Fed raised rates to combat 7.25% growth rate.
1958 $276 $487 57% GDP fell 4.2% in Q4 '57, and another 10.4% in Q1 '58. Unemployment peaked at 7.1% in Sep '58.
1957 $271 $480 56%  
1956 $273 $452 60%  
1955 $274 $431 64%  
1954 $271 $392 69% Recession follows end of Korean War.
1953 $266 $392 68% Korean War ends, total war cost $30 billion.
1952 $259 $368 70%  
1951 $255 $352 73%  
1950 $257 $309 83% Korean War starts.
1949 $253 $273 92% 1949 recession.
1948 $252 $280 90%  
1947 $258 $250 103%  
1946 $269 $228 113% GDP fell 11%.
1945 $259 $228 116% 1945 recession due to end of WWII. War cost $296 billion.
1944 $201 $225 89%  
1943 $137 $203 67%  
1942 $72 $166 44%  
1941 $49 $129 38% Attack on Pearl Harbor, US entered WWII, ending the Great Depression.
1940 $43 $103 42%  
1939 $40 $94 43%  
1938 $37 $87 43%  
1937 $36 $93 39%  
1936 $34 $85 40%  
1935 $29 $74 39%  
1934 $27 $67 40% World trade is down 66% from start of Depression.
1933 $23 $57 39% Roosevelt took office, New Deal signed. Unemployment peaked at 25%.
1932 $19 $60 33% Hoover worsened depression by raising taxes to balance budget.
1931 $17 $77 22%  
1930 $16 $92 18% Stock Market Crash of 1929. Congress passed Smoot-Hawley Tariffs.
1929 $17 $105 16% Hoover maintained high wage controls. Fed raised discount rate to defend gold standard, creating deflation. Combination forces bankruptcies on businesses.

 

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