Real GDP Per Capita, How to Calculate It, and Data Since 1947

What Real GDP per Capita reveals about your lifestyle

two women
••• 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 if you want to 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. 

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.

The third is “per capita,” which means “per person.” Real GDP is divided by the population of a country to calculate real GDP per capita. It's 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 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. 

If you don't know real GDP, you can calculate it from nominal GDP (N) if you know the implicit price deflator (D). The deflator is the ratio of what goods and services would cost today if there had been no inflation since the base year.

It's 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 1947 in 2009 Dollars

Year Real GDP per CapitaEvent Affecting GDP
1947$13,510 
1948$13,784Recession. Adjustment to peace-time.
1949$13,346
1950$14,886Korean War.
1951$15,433 
1952$15,985 
1953$15,803Eisenhower took office. War ended. Recession.
1954$15,951Recession ended.
1955$16,703 
1956$16,733 
1957$16,505Fed raised rates. Recession.
1958$16,666Fed lowered rates. Recession ended. 
1959$17,138Fed raised rates.
1960$16,938Recession.
1961$17,728JFK took office. Ended recession.
1962$18,212
1963$18,885JFK assassinated. LBJ took office. 
1964$19,593 
1965$20,999Vietnam War. 
1966$21,701Fed raised rates to fight inflation.
1967$22,053Economy slowed. 
1968$22,923Fed raised rates.
1969$23,162Nixon took office. Fed raised rates
1970$22,841Recession. 
1971$23,554Burns chaired Fed. Stagflation. Wage-price controls.
1972$24,918
1973$25,680OPEC embargo. Recession. Gold standard ended.
1974$24,952Ford took office. 
1975$25,338Recession ended.
1976$26,186 
1977$27,207Carter took office.
1978$28,715Fed raised rates.
1979$28,763Volcker chaired Fed. Raised rates.
1980$28,428Recession.
1981$28,519Reagan took office. Recession. Cut tax rate.
1982$27,859Recession ended. 
1983$29,774Payroll taxes raised.
1984$31,176 
1985$32,218 
1986$32,870Reagan cut taxes. 
1987$34,025Greenspan chaired Fed. Inflation. 
1988$35,008Fed raised rates.
1989$35,633Bush 41 took office. S&L Crisis.
1990$35,419Recession.
1991$35,381Recession ended.
1992$36,420Fed lowered rate.
1993$36,909Clinton took office. NAFTA and EU
1994$37,980Economy grew 4%.
1995$38,389Fed raised rates. 
1996$39,629 
1997$40,877 
1998$42,432LTCM crisis.
1999$43,919Glass-Steagall repealed. 
2000$44,791Tech bubble burst. 
2001$44,376Bush 43 took office. Recession.  9/11 attacks.
2002$44,857War on Terror.
2003$46,384Fed lowered rate. Iraq WarJGTRRA
2004$47,396Fed raised rates, hurting interest-only loan holders. 
2005$48,381
2006$49,065
2007$49,506Dow hit 14,164.43.
2008$47,697Financial crisis.  Fed lowered rates. QE.
2009$47,170Obama took office. ARRA.
2010$48,079ACA passed. Tax cuts
2011$48,531Iraq War ended.
2012$49,796Fiscal cliff.
2013$49,742Sequestration
2014$50,703
Strong dollar hurt exports
2015 $51,347
2016$51,916Jobs improved. 
2017$52,879Dollar weakened.

Resources for Table