Real GDP Per Capita: How to Calculate, Data Since 1946

What Real GDP per Capita Reveals About Your Lifestyle

two women
GDP per capita measures a country's economic output per person. Photo: Purestock/Getty Images

Real GDP per capita is a measurement of the total economic output of a country divided by the number of people and adjusted for inflation. It's used to compare the standard of living between countries and over time.

This economic indicator consists of the following three concepts. You must understand these first to really comprehend GDP per capita.

The first concept is “gross domestic product.” That measures everything that a country produces in a year.

The components of GDP are personal consumption, business investment, government spending and exports minus imports. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports it quarterly, updating its estimate each month. Here's the current U.S. GDP.

The second is “real GDP,” which is GDP without the effect of price changes. Inflation makes regular, “nominal” GDP higher, so real GDP is a more accurate measurement when you want to compare an economy over time.

Third is “per capita,” which means “per person.” Real GDP is divided by the population of a country to calculate real GDP per capita. This is the best way to compare economic indicators like GDP for countries with very different population sizes. 

Real GDP per Capita Formula

The formula for real GDP per capita depends on what data you have available. Let's start with the simplest. If you already know real GDP (R), then you just divide it by the population (C):

R / C = real GDP per capita.

In the United States, the BEA calculates real GDP using 2009 as the base year. It also provides real GDP for four other base years: 1937, 1952, 1972 and 1987. See its Interactive Tables, Table 1.1.5.

If you don't know real GDP, you can calculate it from nominal GDP (N) if you know the implicit price deflator (D).

This is simply the ratio of what goods and services would cost today if there had been no inflation since the base year. The deflator is similar to another measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index. Its components are weighted differently.

Fortunately, the BEA provides the deflator for 2009 in Table 1.1.9. Here's the formula to calculate real GDP per capita (R) if you only know nominal GDP (N) and the deflator (D):

(N / D) / C = real GDP per capita

The best way to calculate real GDP per capita for the United States is to use the real GDP estimates already published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Then just divide it by the population. 

Annual U.S. Real GDP per Capita Since 1946 in 2009 Dollars

Year Real GDP per CapitaEvent Affecting GDP
1948$13,537Recession. Adjustment to peace-time.
1950$15,029Korean War.
1953$15,664Eisenhower took office. War ended. Recession.
1954$16,338Recession ended.
1957$16,016Fed raised rates. Recession.
1958$16,908Fed lowered rates. Recession ended. 
1959$17,380Fed raised rates.
1961$17,983JFK took office. Ended recession.
1963$19,233JFK assassinated. LBJ took office. 
1965$21,464Vietnam War. 
1966$21,847Fed raised rates to fight inflation.
1967$22,454Economy slowed. 
1968$23,231Fed raised rates.
1969$23,064Nixon took office. Fed raised rates
1971$23,919Burns chaired Fed. Stagflation. Wage-price controls.
1973$25,415OPEC embargo. Recession. Gold standard ended.
1974$24,601Ford took office. 
1975$25,854Recession ended.
1977$27,238Carter took office.
1978$28,699Fed raised rates.
1979$28,775Volcker chaired Fed. Raised rates.
1981$27,982Reagan took office. Recession. Cut tax rate.
1982$28,167Recession ended. 
1983$30,307Payroll taxes raised.
1986$33,036Reagan cut taxes. 
1987$34,148Greenspan chaired Fed. Inflation. 
1988$35,291Fed raised rates.
1989$35,941Bush 41 took office. S&L Crisis.
1991$35,694Recession ended.
1992$36,381Fed lowered rate.
1993$37,171Clinton took office. NAFTA and EU
1994$38,008Economy grew 4%.
1995$38,544Fed raised rates. 
1998$42,663LTCM crisis.
1999$43,935Glass-Steagall repealed. 
2000$44,492Tech bubble burst. 
2001$44,687Bush 43 took office. Recession.  9/11 attacks.
2002$44,996War on Terror.
2003$46,560Fed lowered rate. Iraq WarJGTRRA
2004$47,800Fed raised rates, hurting interest-only loan holders. 
2007$49,060Dow hit 14,164.43.
2008$46,941Financial crisis.  Fed lowered rates. QE.
2009$47,280Obama took office. ARRA.
2010$47,805ACA passed. Tax cuts
2011$48,757Iraq War ended.
2012$49,039Fiscal cliff.
Strong dollar hurt exports
2015 $51,123
2016$57,300Jobs improve. 

Resources for Table

GDP Frequently Asked Questions