National Debt by Year Compared to GDP and Major Events

U.S. Debt by Year Since 1929

U.S. debt
•••  Photo by William Thomas Caine/Getty Images.

As of 2019, the U.S. national debt was more than $22 trillion, which is 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 United States 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, with deficit spending beginning in 2013. 

You can't look at a country's national debt in isolation. Some would argue that 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 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.

The government creates debt with either excessive spending or deep tax cuts. If this expansionary fiscal policy boosts growth, it can begin to lower the debt. A growing economy will produce more tax revenues to pay back the debt.

The theory of supply-side economics says the growth will be enough to replace the tax revenue lost. But that only occurs if taxes are too high — more than 50 percent of income, for example. 

There are other events that can increase the national debt. For example, the U.S. debt grew after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 as the country increased military spending to launch the "War on Terror." Between fiscal years 2001 and 2020, those efforts cost $2.4 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, Sept. 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.  

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

End of Fiscal Year Debt (as of 9/30, in  billions) Debt/  GDP  RatioMajor Events by Presidential Term
1929$1716%Market crash
1930$1618%Hoover signed Smoot-Hawley, reducing trade.
1931$1722%Dust Bowl drought raged.
1932$1933%Hoover raised taxes.
1933$2339%FDR's New Deal increased both GDP and debt.
1935$2939%Social Security.
1936$3440%Tax hikes renewed depression.
1937$3639%Third New Deal.
1938$3743%Dust Bowl ended.
1939$4043%Depression ended.
1940$4350%FDR increased spending and raised taxes.
1941$4945%U.S. entered WWII.
1942$7248%Defense tripled.
1944$20491%Bretton Woods.
1945$260114%WWII ended.
1946$271119%Truman's 1st term budgets. Recession.
1947$257104%Cold War.
1950$25789%Korean War boosted growth and debt. 
1953$26668%Recession when war ended.
1954$27170%Eisenhower's budgets. Recession. 
1958$27658%Eisenhower's 2nd term. Recession.
1959$28554%Fed raised rates.
1961$28952%Bay of Pigs.
1962$29849%JFK budgets. Cuban missile crisis. 
1963$30648%U.S. aids Vietnam. JFK killed.
1964$31246%LBJ's budgets. War on poverty. 
1965$31743%U.S. entered Vietnam War.
1968$34837%Moon landing.
1969$35435%Nixon took office.
1971$39834%Wage-price controls.
1973$45832%Nixon ended gold standard. OPEC oil embargo
1974$47531%Watergate. Budget process created.
1975$53332%Vietnam War ended.
1978$77232%Carter budgets. Recession.
1980$90832%Volcker raised rate to 20%.
1981$99831%Reagan tax cut.
1982$1,14234%Reagan increased spending. 
1983$1,37737%Jobless rate 10.8%.
1984$1,57238%Increased defense spending.
1986$2,12546%Reagan lowered taxed. S&L Crisis. 
1987$2,34048%Market crash
1988$2,60249%Fed raised rates.
1989$2,85750%Bush 41 budgets. S&L Crisis.
1990$3,23354%Desert Storm. 
1993$4,41164%Clinton signed Budget Act
1994$4,69364%Clinton budgets. 
1996$5,22564%Welfare reform.
1998$5,52661%LTCM crisis. Recession. 
1999$5,65658%Glass-Steagall repealed.
2000$5,67455%Budget surplus.
2001$5,80755%9/11 attacksEGTRRA.
2002$6,22857%War on Terror
2003$6,78359%JGTRRAIraq War.
2004$7,37960%Iraq War.
2005$7,93360%Bankruptcy ActKatrina.
2006$8,50761%Bernanke chaired Fed.
2007$9,00862%Bank crisis.
2008$10,02568%Bank bailout. QE.
2009$11,910 ($11,000 on Mar 16 and $12,000 on Nov 16)83%Bank bailout cost $250 b. ARRA added $241.9 b. 
2010$13,562 ($13,000 on Jun 1 and $14,000 on Dec 31)90%ARRA added $400 b. Payroll tax holiday ended. Obama Tax cuts. ACA. Simpson-Bowles
2011$14,790 ($15,000 on Nov 15)95%Debt crisis. Recession and tax cuts reduced revenue.
2012$16,066 ($16,000 on Aug 31)99%Fiscal cliff
2013$16,738  ($17,000 on Oct 17)99%SequesterGovernment shutdown.
2014$17,824  ($18,000 on Dec 15)101%War cost $309 billion. QE ended. Debt ceiling crisis.
2015$18,15199%Defense = $736.4 b.
2016$19,573 ($19,000 on Jan 29)104%Defense = $767.6 b.
2017$20,245  ($20,000 on Sep 8)103%Congress raised debt ceiling. 
2018$21,516 ($21,000 on Mar 15)105%Trump tax cuts
2019$22,776 ($22,000 on February 11)106%Defense = $956.5 b.
2020$24,057 (est.)106%Defense = record $989 b.
2021$25,333 (est.)106% 

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