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U.S. National Debt Over Time & Per Year

U.S. National Debt Statistics

The U.S. national debt gets a lot of attention from the media and politicians. Still, few Americans truly understand what it means.

A few years ago, TIME equated the national debt to a credit card balance, with each American on the hook for nearly $43,000 [2] TIME - James Grant | Can America Afford Its Debt? While such illustrations might help put the national debt into context, in the real world, we won't receive a bill from some mysterious creditor.

In fact, it's just about impossible to compare the national debt to any facet of personal finance. But that complexity doesn't mean it's not relevant. In fact, the national debt matters a great deal to every American. So let's look at how and why U.S. debt has grown over time.


U.S. National Debt Per Year - Graph & Table

Major events and the impact on U.S. debt

It helps to consider the national debt in context. During times of war, the U.S. increases military spending. When the economy is down, the federal government uses spending and tax cuts to spur growth. When these expansionary fiscal policies boost economic growth, higher tax revenues can be used to pay back the debt.

Here's a timeline of the national debt by year, and how it compares to national events.

  • 2017: Cryptocurrencies Go Mainstream & Tax Reform

    This was the year that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies reached a level where awareness really spread among ordinary people – not just those seeking a means of keeping transactions out of the central banking system.

    This was also the year for the first major tax reform in nearly three decades. The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 cut taxes for corporations and individuals, giving the country a short-term economic boost.

    National Debt: $20.245 trillion

  • 2013: Federal Government Shutdown

    Congress couldn't agree on a budget or pass a spending bill in October of 2013, largely due to a standoff over the Affordable Care Act. As a result, the federal government shut down for 16 days, forcing around 800,000 federal workers off the job. Congress raised the debt ceiling to avoid a default and end the shutdown.

    National Debt: $16.738 trillion

  • 2009: Global Recession and Collapse of Wall Street

    Starting in late 2008, the U.S. went into the deepest economic downturn the country had seen since the Great Depression. Investment banks collapsed due to the subprime mortgage crisis. President Barack Obama began his first term in January of 2009. By the end of the year, there were signs of recovery, but a full return to a healthy economy wouldn't come for several years.

    National Debt: $11.910 trillion

  • 2008: Bernard Madoff Ponzi Scheme & Housing Bubble

    Bernie Madoff, former chairman of the NASDAQ and owner of a large investment advisory firm, admitted to running one of the largest investment fraud schemes in Wall Street history. For years, Madoff had been using funds from investors to pay “returns” to other investors, defrauding his clients by around $18 billion.

    This was also the year that the U.S. housing bubble burst. For most of the decade, housing values had been high, and just about anyone could qualify for an adjustable-rate mortgage with low or no down payment.

    When interest rates rose and housing prices fell, homeowners couldn't make their mortgage payments. Large financial institutions were left holding portfolios of worthless mortgage-backed securities.

    National Debt: $10.205 trillion

  • 2005: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Growth of China and India

    In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, nearly destroying New Orleans and becoming one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history. Hurricane Rita followed soon after.

    The two storms caused more than $2 billion in damage, destroyed 275,000 homes, eliminated 400,000 jobs, killed over 1,000 people, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Americans.

    This was also the year that China and India rose as world financial powers. For years, the U.S. had been outsourcing work to these countries because they offered cheap labor. Eventually, the strategy shifted to tapping these workforces for highly educated and skilled technical talent.

    National Debt: $7.933 trillion

  • 2001 – 2003: Twin Towers Attacks, Corporate Scandals, and Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

    The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, led to the War in Afghanistan, and eventually, the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. The war lasted more than eight years, ending on December 18, 2011.

    The stock market had experienced a brief slide after the terrorist attacks. But after rallying, the market began to fall again in March of 2002, partially due to corporate fraud scandals of 2001, such as Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom.

    National Debt: $6.783 trillion

  • 2000: Bursting of the Dot Com Bubble

    After years of investors getting rich on sales of internet and technology stocks, an inflation report caused the Dot Com bubble to burst, resulting in huge investment losses.

    National Debt: $5.674 trillion

  • 1998 – 1999: Impeachment of President Clinton

    President Bill Clinton's second term in the White House was marked by a strong economy and a reversal of the budget deficit. However, his affair with a White House intern led to his impeachment in December of 1998. Clinton was later acquitted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    National Debt: $5,656 trillion

  • 1988: Savings and Loan Crisis

    During the Savings and Loan Crisis, more than 1,000 of the nation's savings and loans failed, costing taxpayers $132 billion and bankrupting the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. This year marked the end of what had once been a secure source of home mortgages.

    National Debt: $2.602 trillion

  • 1981: PATCO Strike

    In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike after contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration collapsed. As a result, around 7,000 flights were canceled across the country, right at the peak of the summer travel season.

    President Ronald Regan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in August of that year, eventually leading to weakening the power of labor unions.

    National Debt: $998 billion

  • 1975: Vietnam War Ends

    The Vietnam War, as well as U.S. involvement in it, went on for nearly 20 years and took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. The U.S. and North Korea reached a peace agreement in 1973, but its impact lingered long after troops returned home. The nation had spent more than $120 billion on the conflict from 1965 – 1973. That spending led to widespread inflation, a worldwide oil crisis, and skyrocketing fuel prices.

    National Debt: $533 billion

  • 1972 – 1974: Watergate Scandal

    President Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, facing impeachment for his role in covering up the Watergate scandal. The events resulted in a loss of faith in government officials that lasted for the rest of the decade.

    National Debt: $475 billion

  • 1964 - 1968: Civil Rights Act and Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    The civil rights movement began in the 1950s, with African Americans seeking to gain equal rights under U.S. law. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, guaranteeing equal employment for all. It also limited the use of voter literacy tests and allowed federal authorities to ensure public facilities were integrated.

    Civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. witnessed the signing of the Act but was assassinated four years later. Looting and riots followed.

    National Debt: $348 billion

  • 1958: The Creation of NASA

    President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July of 1958, creating NASA. Over the next 40 years, the U.S. space program put a man on the moon. It contributed to advances in technology, science, weather research, and communications.

    National Debt: $276 billion

  • 1941 - 1945: Attack on Pearl Harbor and Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

    World War II officially began in 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland. The U.S. did not enter the war until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

    Four years later, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.

    National Debt: $259 billion

  • 1933: The New Deal & the Agricultural Adjustment Administration

    In this year, approximately one-fourth of U.S. workers were unemployed, thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The New Deal was President Franklin Roosevelt's effort to revive the economy and bring about reforms in industry, agriculture, labor, finance, and housing. Roosevelt drummed up support for the program in a series of “fireside chats” broadcast to the American people.

    The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was one New Deal initiative. It sought to curtail farm production by subsidizing farmers who reduced their output. By 1936, payments totaling $1.5 billion had been paid out.

    National Debt: $23 billion

  • 1929: Stock Market Crash & the Great Depression

    On October 29, 1929, wild speculation and rapid expansion finally caught up with Wall Street. The Black Tuesday stock market crash resulted in billions of dollars lost. In its aftermath, America and the rest of the industrialized world spiraled into the Great Depression, which lasted until 1939. It was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the U.S. up to that time.

    National Debt: $17 billion

  • 1917 – 1918: World War I

    World War I began in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and lasted until 1918. The U.S. didn't enter the war until 1915, when Germany sunk the British ocean liner Lusitania, which was traveling from New York to Liverpool, England, with hundreds of American passengers on board. The war saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction thanks to new military technologies and the invention of trench warfare. By the time it was over, more than 16 million people had died.

    National Debt: $15 billion

  • 1902 – 1904: Breakup of Northern Securities

    In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Justice Department to break up the Northern Securities Company. This holding company controlled the main railroad lines from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

    Roosevelt took the position that the company was an illegal monopoly. The company appealed the move, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the federal government.

    National debt: $2.3 billion

  • 1861 – 1865: American Civil War

    The American Civil War began in 1861 after decades of tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states' rights, and westward expansion. After President Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, several southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America.

    The Civil War ended with Confederate surrender in 1865. It resulted in the deaths of more than 620,000 people, millions more injured, and the South left in ruins.

    National Debt: $2.7 billion

  • 1837 - 1844: Panic of 1837

    The Panic of 1837 touched off a major recession in the U.S. that lasted until the mid-1840s. Speculative lending practices in the western states, a sharp decline in cotton prices, a collapsing land bubble, and other economic troubles led banks in New York City to suspend specie payments (payment in metals, usually gold bullion [3] Britannica - Specie payment | American finance The recession caused banks to collapse, businesses to fail, and thousands of workers to lose their jobs.

    National Debt: $23 million

  • 1812 – 1815: The War of 1812

    During the War of 1812, the U.S. took on Great Britain over its attempts to restrict U.S. trade and the Royal Navy's impressment of American seamen. The U.S. suffered many costly defeats during the war.

    Despite these losses, many in the U.S. celebrated the war as a “second war of independence,” and it boosted national confidence and a new spirit of patriotism.

    National Debt: $45 million

  • 1803: The Louisiana Purchase

    In this year, President Thomas Jefferson successfully negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France, adding 530 million acres of land to the U.S. The purchase cost the U.S. $15 million. However, it ensured the U.S. had access to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, both of which were critical to American commerce.

    National Debt: $77 million

  • 1790s: Industrial Revolution

    The Industrial Revolution began in Britain during the mid-18th century but reached the U.S. when Samuel Slater opened the first industrial mill in 1790. The mill greatly increased the speed at which cotton thread could be spun into yarn. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution would change the focus of the U.S. economy.

    National Debt: $71 million

US Debt Per Citizen

At the time of this writing, the U.S. debt per citizen in 2020 is $71,389.67 per person. You can find that figure at any time by dividing the national debt [1] TreasureDirect - The debt to the Penny and Who Holds It number available from the Treasury Department by the U.S. population [4] - Population clock figure provided by the U.S. Census.

That's a big leap from TIME's calculation in 2016, but a lot can change in four years – especially when those years include sweeping corporate tax cuts. But don't worry about getting a bill in the mail.

The national debt isn't like a credit card. It's more of a reflection of the timing of taxes. High spending and low taxes today will mean higher taxes in the future. Taxpayers might not be happy about paying more down the road, but after all, the government's resources aren't unlimited.


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