National Debt by Year Compared to GDP and Major Events

U.S. Debt by Year Since 1929

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The U.S. debt increases each year. The burden to repay it will fall on the shoulders of young Americans. Photo: Fuse/Getty Images

The national debt is more than $20 trillion. It exceeded that amount on September 8, 2017. It's greater than the economic output of the entire country. It occurred despite Congressional attempts to cut government spending. These included threats to not raise the debt ceiling and the U.S. debt crisis in 2011. That's when the U.S. headed toward a debt default. It continued with the fiscal cliff crisis in 2012 and a government shutdown in 2013.

 Sequestration slowed, but didn't halt, deficit spending beginning in 2013. 

You can't look at a country's national debt in isolation. Sometimes expansionary fiscal policy, such as spending and tax cuts, was needed to spur the economy out of recession. Other times, the United States increased military spending to respond to national threats. For more, see Why Is the U.S. Debt So Big?

For those reasons, the national debt by year should be compared to the size of the economy as measured by the gross domestic product. This gives you the debt to GDP ratio. You can use it to compare the national debt to other countries. It also gives you an idea of how likely the country is to pay its debt back.

By spurring economic growth, the government spending or tax cuts that created the national 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 events that can increase the national debt. For example, the U.S. debt grew after the 9/11 attacks as the country increased military spending to launch the War on Terror. Between FY 2001-FY 2017, it cost $1.9 trillion. This included increases to the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.

In the table below, the U.S. debt by year is compared to GDP and national events since 1929. 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. Please note: GDP in the years up to 1947 are not available for the third quarter, so year-end figures are used. ​They are compared to July figures for the debt/GDP ratio.

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

End of Fiscal Year Debt  (9/30, in  billions) Debt/  GDP  RatioMajor Events by Presidential Term
1929$1716%

Market crash. Depression reduced tax receipts so Hoover raised taxes which worsened depression. Smoot-Hawley tariffs reduced trade.

1930$1618%
1931$1722%
1932$1933%
1933$2339%
1934$2740%FDR's New Deal increased both GDP and debt.
1935$2939%
1936$3440%
1937$3639%
1938$3743%FDR cut spending to balance budget. Depression returned. He increased debt and GDP to prepare for WW2. Depression ended.
1939$4043%
1940$5150%
1941$5845%
1942$7948%US entered WWII. Increased debt and GDP. WW2 end created recession.
1943$14370%
1944$20491%
1945$260114%
1946$271119%Truman's 1st term budgets. Recession as economy adjusted to peacetime. 
 
1947$257104%
1948$25292%
1949$25393%
1950$25789%Truman's 2nd term. Korean War (1950-1953) boosted growth and debt, but created recession when it ended. 
1951$25574%
1952$25972%
1953$26668%
1954$27170%Eisenhower's budgets. Recession. Fed raised rates. Worsened recession.
1955$27465%
1956$27361%
1957$27157%
1958$27658%Eisenhower's 2nd term. Recession.
 
1959$28554%
1960$28653%
1961$28952%
1962$29849%JFK budgets. Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. aided Vietnam coup.
1963$30648%
1964$31246%
1965$31743%LBJ's budgets. War on Poverty. Vietnam War. Fed raised rates.
 
1966$32040%
1967$32638%
1968$34837%
1969$35435%
1970$37135%

Recession. Wage-price controls. OPEC oil embargo. Nixon ended gold standard. Fed doubled interest rates. Vietnam War ended. 

1971$39834%
1972$42734%
1973$45832%
1974$47531%Stagflation. Watergate. 
1975$53332%Ford budgets.
1976*$62033%
1977$69933%
1978$77232%

Carter budgets. 

Volcker raised rate to 20%. Iran oil embargo. Recession.

1979$82731%
1980$90832%
1981$99831%
1982$1,14234%Reagan budgets from 1st term. Recession.
1983$1,37737%
1984$1,57238%
1985$1,82341%
1986$2,12546%Reagan lowered taxes. S&L Crisis.
1987$2,34048%
1988$2,60249%
1989$2,85750%
1990$3,23353%Bush 41 budgets. Desert Storm. Recession. Debt growth slowed. 
1991$3,66558%
1992$4,06561%
1993$4,41163%
1994$4,69363%

Clinton budgets.

Budget Act reduced deficit spending.

1995$4,97464%
1996$5,22564%
1997$5,41362%
1998$5,52660%Last Clinton budgets. 9/11 attacks. Recession. Bush added $22.9 billion to FY01 budget for War on Terror.
1999$5,65658%
2000$5,67454%
2001$5,80754%
2002$6,22856%

First George W. Bush budgets. War on Terror cost $409.2 billion. Bank bailout cost $350 billion. Bush tax cuts

2003$6,78358%
2004$7,37959%
2005$7,93360%
2006$8,50761%

War cost $752.2 billion. 

Katrina cost $24.7 billion. ARRA added $241.9 billion to FY09 budget.

2007$9,00861%
2008$10,02567%
2009$11,910 ($11,000 on Mar 16 and $12,000 on Nov 16.83%
2010$13,562 ($13,000 on Jun 1 and $14,000 on Dec 31.90%

Obama Stimulus Act cost $400 billion. Payroll tax holiday ended. War cost $512.6 billion. Great Recession and tax cuts reduced revenue.

2011$14,790 ($15,000 on Nov 15)95%
2012$16,066 ($16,000 on Aug 31)99%
2013$16,738  ($17,000 on Oct 17)100%
2014$17,824  ($18,000 on Dec 15)102%

War cost $309 billion. QE ended. Strong dollar hurt exports.

2015$18,151101%
2016$19,573 ($19,000 on Jan 29)105%
2017$20,245  ($20,000 on Sept. 8, 2017.)104%Congress raised debt ceiling.

* 1976 was the final year the fiscal year was July 1. Those years were compared to Q2 GDP for consistency.

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