Charting America's Debt: $27 Trillion and Counting
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Charting America’s Debt: $27 Trillion and Counting

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America's Debt Infographic

Why America’s Debt Doesn’t Stop Growing

Public sector debt has been a contentious topic for many years. While some believe that excessive government borrowing can be harmful over the long term, others have argued that it acts as a powerful tool for stimulating growth.

In the U.S., the latter view appears to have taken hold. Since 2008, America’s national debt has surged nearly 200%, reaching $27 trillion as of October 2020. To gain a better understanding of this ever-growing debt, this infographic takes a closer look at various U.S. budgetary datasets including the 2019 fiscal balance.

America’s Debt vs. GDP

Government debts are often represented by incredibly large numbers, making them hard to comprehend. By comparing America’s debt to its annual GDP, we can get a better grasp on the relative size of the country’s financial obligations.

YearTotal Public Debt (USD)GDP (USD)Debt as % of GDP
1994$4.5T$7.1T63%
1995$4.8T$7.5T64%
1996$5.0T$7.9T63%
1997$5.3T$8.4T63%
1998$5.5T$8.9T62%
1999$5.6T$9.4T60%
2000$5.8T$10.0T58%
2001$5.7T$10.5T54%
2002$5.9T$10.8T55%
2003$6.4T$11.2T57%
2004$7.0T$11.9T59%
2005$7.6T$12.8T59%
2006$8.2T$13.6T60%
2007$8.7T$14.2T61%
2008$9.2T$14.7T63%
2009$10.6T$14.4T74%
2010$12.3T$14.7T84%
2011$14.0T$15.3T92%
2012$15.2T$16.0T95%
2013$16.4T$16.6T99%
2014$17.3T$17.1T101%
2015$18.1T$18.0T101%
2016$18.9T$18.5T102%
2017$19.9T$19.2T104%
2018$20.5T$20.2T101%
2019$21.9T$21.1T104%
2020$23.2T$21.6T107%
April 2020$23.7T$19.5T122%

Source: Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury

In this context, U.S. debt was relatively moderate between 1994 to 2007, averaging 60% of GDP over the timeframe. This took a drastic turn during the Global Financial Crisis, with debt climbing to 95% of GDP by 2012.

Since then, America’s debt has only increased in relative size. In April 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full force, it reached a record 122% of GDP. This may sound troubling at first, but there are a few caveats.

For starters, there are many other advanced economies that have also surpassed the 100% debt-to-GDP milestone. The most noteworthy is Japan, where the debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed beyond 200%. Furthermore, this is not the first time America has found itself in this situation—by the end of World War II, debt-to-GDP peaked at 106% before declining to historic lows in the 1970s.

What’s Preventing the Debt From Shrinking?

Although the U.S. continuously pays off portions of its debt, the total amount it owes has increased each year since 2001. That’s because the federal government runs consistent budget deficits, meaning it spends more than it earns. During economic crises, these deficits can become incredibly large.

Fiscal Year (Sept 30)Budget Surplus or Deficit (USD billions)
2000+$236B
2001+$128B
2002-$158B
2003-$378B
2004-$418B
2005-$318B
2006-$248B
2007-$161B
2008-$458B
2009-$1,412B
2010-$1,294B
2011-$1,299B
2012-$1,076B
2013-$680B
2014-$485B
2015-$441B
2016-$585B
2017-$665B
2018-$779B
2019-$984B
2020-$3,131B

Source: Federal Reserve

In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, the U.S. recorded an annual deficit of $1.4 trillion in FY2009. This was largely due to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided tax rebates and other economic relief.

In the economic battle against COVID-19’s impacts, the boundaries have been pushed even further. The annual deficit for FY2020 weighs in at a staggering $3.1 trillion, the largest ever. Contributing to this historic deficit was the $2 trillion CARES Act, which provided wide-ranging support to the entire U.S. economy.

Breaking Down the 2019 Fiscal Balance

Even in the years between these two economic crises, government spending still outpaced revenues. To find out more, we’ve broken down the 2019 fiscal balance into its various components.

Federal Spending

Total spending in FY2019 was roughly $4.4 trillion, and can be broken out into three components.

The first component is Mandatory Spending, which accounted for 62% of the total. Mandatory spending is required by law, and includes funding for important programs such as social security.

CategoryAmount (USD billions)Percent of Total Federal Spending
Health programs$1,121B25.5%
Social security$1,039B23.6%
Income security$301B6.8%
Federal civilian and military retirement$164B3.7%
Other$109B2.5%
Total mandatory spending$2,735B62.2%

Figures may not add to 100 due to rounding. Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation

The largest category here was Health, with $1.1 trillion in funding for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Social security, which provides payments to retirees, was the second largest at $1.0 trillion.

The second component is Discretionary Spending, which accounted for 30% of the total. Discretionary spending is determined on an annual basis by Congress and the President.

Discretionary SpendingAmount (USD)Share of Total Federal Spending
Defense$677B15.4%
Transportation$100B2.3%
Veteran's benefits & services$85B1.9%
Education$72B1.6%
Health$66B1.5%
Administration of justice$59B1.3%
International affairs$52B1.2%
General government$51B1.2%
Housing assistance$49B1.1%
Natural resources and environment$44B1.0%
General science, space, and technology$32B0.7%
Community and regional development$27B0.6%
Training, employment, and social services$23B0.5%

Total discretionary spending


$1,338B


30.4%

Figures may not add to 100 due to rounding. Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation

At $677 billion, the Defense category represents over half of total discretionary spending. These funds are spread across the five branches of the U.S. military: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force.

The third component of spending is the net interest costs on existing government debt. For FY2019, this was approximately $327 billion.

Federal Revenues

Revenues in FY2019 fell short of total spending, coming in at approximately $3.5 trillion. These inflows can be traced back to six categories.

CategoryAmount (USD billions)Percent of Total Revenues
Individual income taxes$1,732B50.0%
Payroll taxes$1,247B36.0%
Corporate income taxes$242B7.0%
Other$104B3.0%
Excise taxes$104B3.0%
Customs duties$69B2.0%
Total revenues$3,464B100.0%

Figures may not add to 100 due to rounding. Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation

Revenues overwhelmingly relied on individual income and payroll taxes, which together, accounted for 86% of the total. Corporate income taxes, on the other hand, accounted for just 7%.

Is America’s Debt a Cause for Concern?

The general consensus following the events of 2008 is that large fiscal stimulus (supported by government borrowing) was effective in speeding up the consequent recovery.

Now facing a pandemic, it’s likely that many Americans would support the idea of running large deficits to boost the economy. Surveys released in July 2020, for example, found that 82% of Americans wanted federal relief measures to be extended.

Looking beyond COVID-19, however, does reveal some warning signs. One frequent criticism of the ever-growing national debt is its associated interest costs, which could cannibalize investment in other areas. In fact, the effects of this dilemma are already becoming apparent. Over the past decade, the U.S. has spent more on interest than it has on programs such as veterans benefits and education.

us federal net interest costs chart

With low interest rates expected for the foreseeable future, the federal government is likely to continue running its large annual deficits—at least until the effects of COVID-19 have fully subsided. Perhaps after this crisis is over, it will be time to assess the long-term sustainability of America’s rising national debt.

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

Robust growth in mortgages has pushed U.S. consumer debt to nearly $16 trillion. Click to gain further insight into the situation.

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), U.S. consumer debt is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion. Critically, the rate of increase in consumer debt for the fourth quarter of 2021 was also the highest seen since 2007.

This graphic provides context into the consumer debt situation using data from the end of 2021.

Housing Vs. Non-Housing Debt

The following table includes the data used in the above graphic. Housing debt covers mortgages, while non-housing debt covers auto loans, student loans, and credit card balances.

DateHousing Debt
(USD trillions)
Non-Housing Debt
(USD trillions)
Total Consumer Debt
(USD trillions)
Q1 20035.182.057.23
Q2 20035.342.047.38
Q3 20035.452.107.55
Q4 20035.962.108.06
Q1 20046.172.138.30
Q2 20046.342.128.46
Q3 20046.642.208.84
Q4 20046.832.229.05
Q1 20057.012.199.20
Q2 20057.232.269.49
Q3 20057.452.359.80
Q4 20057.672.3410.01
Q1 20068.022.3610.38
Q2 20068.352.4010.75
Q3 20068.652.4611.11
Q4 20068.832.4811.31
Q1 20079.032.4611.49
Q2 20079.332.5311.86
Q3 20079.562.5812.14
Q4 20079.752.6312.38
Q1 20089.892.6512.54
Q2 20089.952.6512.60
Q3 20089.982.6912.67
Q4 20089.972.7112.68
Q1 20099.852.6812.53
Q2 20099.772.6312.40
Q3 20099.652.6212.27
Q4 20099.552.6212.17
Q1 20109.532.5812.11
Q2 20109.382.5511.93
Q3 20109.282.5611.84
Q4 20109.122.5911.71
Q1 20119.182.5811.76
Q2 20119.142.5811.72
Q3 20119.042.6211.66
Q4 20118.902.6311.53
Q1 20128.802.6411.44
Q2 20128.742.6411.38
Q3 20128.602.7111.31
Q4 20128.592.7511.34
Q1 20138.482.7511.23
Q2 20138.382.7711.15
Q3 20138.442.8511.29
Q4 20138.582.9411.52
Q1 20148.702.9611.66
Q2 20148.623.0211.64
Q3 20148.643.0711.71
Q4 20148.683.1611.84
Q1 20158.683.1711.85
Q2 20158.623.2411.86
Q3 20158.753.3112.06
Q4 20158.743.3712.11
Q1 20168.863.3912.25
Q2 20168.843.4512.29
Q3 20168.823.5412.36
Q4 20168.953.6312.58
Q1 20179.093.6412.73
Q2 20179.143.6912.83
Q3 20179.193.7712.96
Q4 20179.323.8213.14
Q1 20189.383.8513.23
Q2 20189.433.8713.30
Q3 20189.563.9513.51
Q4 20189.534.0113.54
Q1 20199.654.0213.67
Q2 20199.814.0613.87
Q3 20199.844.1313.97
Q4 20199.954.2014.15
Q1 202010.104.2114.31
Q2 202010.154.1214.27
Q3 202010.224.1414.36
Q4 202010.394.1714.56
Q1 202110.504.1414.64
Q2 202110.764.2014.96
Q3 202110.994.2415.23
Q4 202111.254.3415.59

Source: Federal Reserve

Trends in Housing Debt

Home prices have experienced upward pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which has increased by 34% since the start of the pandemic.

Driving this growth are various pandemic-related impacts. For example, the cost of materials such as lumber have seen enormous spikes. We’ve covered this story in a previous graphic, which showed how many homes could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. In most cases, these higher costs are passed on to the consumer.

Another key factor here is mortgage rates, which fell to all-time lows in 2020. When rates are low, consumers are able to borrow in larger quantities. This increases the demand for homes, which in turn inflates prices.

Ultimately, higher home prices translate to more mortgage debt being incurred by families.

No Need to Worry, Though

Economists believe that today’s housing debt isn’t a cause for concern. This is because the quality of borrowers is much stronger than it was between 2003 and 2007, in the years leading up to the financial crisis and subsequent housing crash.

In the chart below, subprime borrowers (those with a credit score of 620 and below) are represented by the red-shaded bars:

Mortgage originations by Credit Score

We can see that subprime borrowers represent very little (2%) of today’s total originations compared to the period between 2003 to 2007 (12%). This suggests that American homeowners are, on average, less likely to default on their mortgage.

Economists have also noted a decline in the household debt service ratio, which measures the percentage of disposable income that goes towards a mortgage. This is shown in the table below, along with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate.

YearMortgage Payments as a % of Disposable IncomeAverage 30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate
200012.0%8.2%
200412.2%5.4%
200812.8%5.8%
20129.8%3.9%
20169.9%3.7%
20209.4%3.5%
20219.3%3.2%

Source: Federal Reserve

While it’s true that Americans are less burdened by their mortgages, we must acknowledge the decrease in mortgage rates that took place over the same period.

With the Fed now increasing rates to calm inflation, Americans could see their mortgages begin to eat up a larger chunk of their paycheck. In fact, mortgage rates have already risen for seven consecutive weeks.

Trends in Non-Housing Consumer Debt

The key stories in non-housing consumer debt are student loans and auto loans.

The former category of debt has grown substantially over the past two decades, with growth tapering off during the pandemic. This can be attributed to COVID relief measures which have temporarily lowered the interest rate on direct federal student loans to 0%.

Additionally, these loans were placed into forbearance, meaning 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments. As of April 2022, the value of these waived payments has reached $195 billion.

Over the course of the pandemic, very few direct federal borrowers have made voluntary payments to reduce their loan principal. When payments eventually resume, and the 0% interest rate is reverted, economists believe that delinquencies could rise significantly.

Auto loans, on the other hand, are following a similar trajectory as mortgages. Both new and used car prices have risen due to the global chip shortage, which is hampering production across the entire industry.

To put this in numbers, the average price of a new car has climbed from $35,600 in 2019, to over $47,000 today. Over a similar timeframe, the average price of a used car has grown from $19,800, to over $28,000.

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Visualizing the State of Global Debt, by Country

Global debt reached $226T by the end of 2020 – the biggest one-year jump since WWII. This graphic compares the debt-to-GDP ratio of various countries.

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global debt

Visualizing the State of Global Debt, by Country

Since COVID-19 started its spread around the world in 2020, the global economy has been put to the test with supply chain disruptions, price volatility for commodities, challenges in the job market, and declining income from tourism. The World Bank has estimated that almost 97 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic.

In order to help with this difficult situation, global governments have had to increase their expenditures to deal with higher healthcare costs, unemployment, food insecurity, and to help businesses to survive. Countries have taken on new debt to provide financial support for these measures, which has resulted in the highest global debt levels in half a century.

To analyze the extent of global debt, we’ve compiled debt-to-GDP data by country from the most recent World Economic Outlook report by the IMF.

Global Debt by Country: The Top 10 Most Indebted Nations

The debt-to-GDP ratio is a simple metric that compares a country’s public debt to its economic output. By comparing how much a country owes and how much it produces in a year, economists can measure a country’s theoretical ability to pay off its debt.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 countries in terms of debt-to-GDP:

RankCountryDebt-to-GDP (2021)
#1Japan 🇯🇵257%
#2Sudan 🇸🇩210%
#3Greece 🇬🇷207%
#4Eritrea 🇪🇷175%
#5Cape Verde 🇨🇻161%
#6Italy 🇮🇹155%
#7Suriname 🇸🇷141%
#8Barbados 🇧🇧138%
#9Singapore 🇸🇬138%
#10Maldives 🇲🇻137%

Source: World Economic Outlook Report (October 2021 Edition)

Japan, Sudan, and Greece top the list with debt-to-GDP ratios well above 200%, followed by Eritrea (175%), Cape Verde (160%), and Italy (154%).

Japan’s debt level won’t come as a surprise to most. In 2010, it became the first country to reach a debt-to-GDP ratio 200%, and it now sits at 257%. In order to finance new debt, the Japanese government issues bonds which get bought up primarily by the Bank of Japan.

By the end of 2020, the Bank of Japan owned 45% of government debt outstanding.

What is the main risk of a high debt-to-GDP ratio?

A rapid increase in government debt is a major cause for concern. Generally, the higher a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is, the higher chance that country could default on its debt, therefore creating a financial panic in the markets.

The World Bank published a study showing that countries that maintained a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 77% for prolonged periods of time experienced economic slowdowns.

COVID-19 has worsened a debt crisis that has been brewing since the 2008 global recession. A report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that at least 100 countries will have to reduce expenditures on health, education, and social protection. Also, 30 countries in the developing world have high levels of debt distress, meaning they’re experiencing great difficulties in servicing their debt.

This crisis is hitting poor and middle-income countries harder than rich countries. Wealthier countries are borrowing to launch fiscal stimulus packages while low and middle income countries cannot afford such measures, potentially resulting in wider global inequality.

The IMF Warns of Interest Rates

Global debt reached $226 trillion by the end of 2020, seeing the biggest one-year increase since World War II.

Borrowing by governments accounted for slightly over half of the $28 trillion increase, bringing global public debt ratio to a record of 99% of GDP. As interest rates rise, IMF officials warn that higher interest rates will diminish the impact of fiscal spending, and cause debt sustainability concerns to intensify. “The risks will be magnified if global interest rates rise faster than expected and growth falters,” the officials wrote.

“A significant tightening of financial conditions would heighten the pressure on the most highly indebted governments, households, and firms. If the public and private sectors are forced to deleverage simultaneously, growth prospects will suffer.”

Editor’s note: All data used in our visualization was extracted from the World Economic Outlook Report (October 2021 Edition) and The World Bank. We will update this data when the new report is available in April 2022.

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