Looking Back at 150 Years of U.S. Debt
The total U.S. national debt reached an all-time high of $28 trillion* in March 2021, the largest amount ever recorded.
Recent increases to the debt have been fueled by massive fiscal stimulus bills like the CARES Act ($2.2 trillion in March 2020), the Consolidated Appropriations Act ($2.3 trillion in December 2020), and most recently, the American Rescue Plan ($1.9 trillion in March 2021).
To see how America’s debt has gotten to its current point, we’ve created an interactive timeline using data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It’s crucial to note that the data set uses U.S. national debt held by the public, which excludes intergovernmental holdings.
*Editor’s note: This top level figure includes intragovernmental holdings, or the roughly $6 trillion of debt owed within the government to itself.
What Influences U.S. Debt?
It’s worth pointing out that the national debt hasn’t always been this large.
Looking back 150 years, we can see that its size relative to GDP has fluctuated greatly, hitting multiple peaks and troughs. These movements generally correspond with events such as wars and recessions.
|Decade||Gross debt at start |
|Avg. Debt Held By Public|
(% of GDP)
|1910||-||10.0%||World War I|
|1920||-||22.9%||The Great Depression|
|1930||$16||36.4%||President Roosevelt's New Deal|
|1940||$40||75.1%||World War II|
|1970||$371||26.1%||Stagflation (inflation + high unemployment)|
|1980||$908||33.7%||President Reagan's tax cuts|
|2000||$5,674||36.6%||9/11 attacks & Global Financial Crisis|
|2010||$13,562||72.4%||Debt ceiling is raised by Congress|
Source: CBO, The Balance
To gain further insight into the history of the U.S. national debt, let’s review some key economic events in America’s history.
The Great Depression
After its WWI victory, the U.S. enjoyed a period of post-war prosperity commonly referred to as the Roaring Twenties.
This led to the creation of a stock market bubble which would eventually burst in 1929, causing massive damage to the U.S. economy. The country’s GDP was cut in half (partially due to deflation), while the unemployment rate rose to 25%.
Government revenues dipped as a result, pushing debt held by the public as a % of GDP from its low of 15% in 1929, to a high of 44% in 1934.
World War II
WWII quickly brought the U.S. back to full employment, but it was an incredibly expensive endeavor. The total cost of the war is estimated to be over $4 trillion in today’s dollars.
To finance its efforts, the U.S. relied heavily on war bonds, a type of bond that is marketed to citizens during armed conflicts. These bonds were sold in various denominations ranging from $25-$10,000 and had a 2.9% interest rate compounded semiannually.
Over 85 million Americans purchased these bonds, helping the U.S. government to raise $186 billion (not adjusted for inflation). This pushed debt above 100% of GDP for the first time ever, but was also enough to cover 63% of the war’s total cost.
The Postwar Period
Following World War II, the U.S. experienced robust economic growth.
Despite involvement in the Korea and Vietnam wars, debt-to-GDP declined to a low of 23% in 1974—largely because these wars were financed by raising taxes rather than borrowing.
The economy eventually slowed in the early 1980s, prompting President Reagan to slash taxes on corporations and high earning individuals. Income taxes on the top bracket, for example, fell from 70% to 50%.
2008 Global Financial Crisis
The Global Financial Crisis served as a precursor for today’s debt landscape.
Interest rates were reduced to near-zero levels to speed up the economic recovery, enabling the government to borrow with relative ease. Rates remained at these suppressed levels from 2008 to 2015, and debt-to-GDP grew from 39% to 73%.
It’s important to note that even before 2008, the U.S. government had been consistently running annual budget deficits. This means that the government spends more than it earns each year through taxes.
The National Debt Today
The COVID-19 pandemic damaged many areas of the global economy, forcing governments to drastically increase their spending. At the same time, many central banks once again reduced interest rates to zero.
This has resulted in a growing snowball of government debt that shows little signs of shrinking, even though the worst of the pandemic is already behind us.
In the U.S., federal debt has reached or surpassed WWII levels. When excluding intragovernmental holdings, it now sits at 104% of GDP—and including those holdings, it sits at 128% of GDP. But while the debt is expected to grow even further, the cost of servicing this debt has actually decreased in recent years.
This is because existing government bonds, which were originally issued at higher rates, are now maturing and being refinanced to take advantage of today’s lower borrowing costs.
The key takeaway from this is that the U.S. national debt will remain manageable for the foreseeable future. Longer term, however, interest expenses are expected to grow significantly—especially if interest rates begin to rise again.
Mapped: Which Countries Have the Highest Inflation?
Many countries around the world are facing double or triple-digit inflation. See which countries have the highest inflation rates on this map.
Mapped: Which Countries Have the Highest Inflation Rate?
Inflation is surging nearly everywhere in 2022.
Geopolitical tensions are triggering high energy costs, while supply-side disruptions are also distorting consumer prices. The end result is that almost half of countries worldwide are seeing double-digit inflation rates or higher.
With new macroeconomic forces shaping the global economy, the above infographic shows countries with the highest inflation rates, using data from Trading Economics.
Double-Digit Inflation in 2022
As the table below shows, countless countries are navigating record-high levels of inflation. Some are even facing triple-digit inflation rates. Globally, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, and Venezuela have the highest rates in the world.
|Country||Inflation Rate, Year-Over-Year||Date|
|🇿🇼 Zimbabwe||269.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇱🇧 Lebanon||162.0%||Sep 2022|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||156.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇾 Syria||139.0%||Aug 2022|
|🇸🇩 Sudan||103.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇷 Argentina||88.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇷 Turkey||85.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||66.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇮🇷 Iran||52.2%||Aug 2022|
|🇸🇷 Suriname||41.4%||Sep 2022|
|🇬🇭 Ghana||40.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇺 Cuba||37.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇱🇦 Laos||36.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇩 Moldova||34.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇪🇹 Ethiopia||31.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇷🇼 Rwanda||31.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇭🇹 Haiti||30.5%||Jul 2022|
|🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||29.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇰 Pakistan||26.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇺🇦 Ukraine||26.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇼 Malawi||25.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇱🇹 Lithuania||23.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇪🇪 Estonia||22.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇮 Burundi||22.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇹 Sao Tome and Principe||21.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇱🇻 Latvia||21.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇭🇺 Hungary||21.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇳🇬 Nigeria||21.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇰 Macedonia||19.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇲 Myanmar||19.4%||Jun 2022|
|🇰🇿 Kazakhstan||18.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇵🇱 Poland||17.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇬 Bulgaria||17.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇲 Turkmenistan||17.5%||Dec 2021|
|🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||17.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇲🇪 Montenegro||16.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇴 Angola||16.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇫 Burkina Faso||16.5%||Sep 2022|
|🇪🇬 Egypt||16.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇰🇲 Comoros||15.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan||15.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇷🇴 Romania||15.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇾 Belarus||15.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇿 Czech Republic||15.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇷🇸 Serbia||15.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇰 Slovakia||14.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇳 Mongolia||14.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇳🇱 Netherlands||14.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇿 Azerbaijan||13.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇫 Afghanistan||13.6%||Sep 2022|
|🇬🇲 Gambia||13.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇭🇷 Croatia||13.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇼 Botswana||13.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇳 Senegal||13.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇱 Chile||12.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇽🇰 Kosovo||12.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇷🇺 Russia||12.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇳 Guinea||12.4%||Jul 2022|
|🇧🇪 Belgium||12.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇴 Colombia||12.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇺🇿 Uzbekistan||12.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇬 Congo||12.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇳🇮 Nicaragua||12.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||12.1%||Jun 2022|
|🇲🇺 Mauritius||11.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇿 Mozambique||11.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇮🇹 Italy||11.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇱 Mali||11.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇲🇷 Mauritania||11.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||11.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇹 Austria||11.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇪 Sweden||10.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇺🇬 Uganda||10.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇪 Georgia||10.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇩🇪 Germany||10.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇭🇳 Honduras||10.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇩🇰 Denmark||10.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇵🇹 Portugal||10.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇯🇲 Jamaica||9.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇮 Slovenia||9.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇹 Guatemala||9.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇿🇲 Zambia||9.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇰🇪 Kenya||9.6%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇲 Armenia||9.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇮🇸 Iceland||9.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇬 Madagascar||9.3%||Aug 2022|
|🇮🇪 Ireland||9.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇱🇸 Lesotho||9.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇹🇳 Tunisia||9.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇷 Greece||9.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇺🇾 Uruguay||9.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇷 Costa Rica||9.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇩 Bangladesh||8.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇾 Cyprus||8.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇫🇴 Faroe Islands||8.8%||Sep 2022|
|🇩🇿 Algeria||8.7%||Sep 2022|
|🇳🇵 Nepal||8.6%||Sep 2022|
|🇸🇧 Solomon Islands||8.5%||Aug 2022|
|🇲🇽 Mexico||8.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇼 Guinea Bissau||8.4%||Sep 2022|
|🇦🇱 Albania||8.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇧 Barbados||8.3%||Aug 2022|
|🇫🇮 Finland||8.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇦 Morocco||8.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇪 Peru||8.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||8.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇻 Cape Verde||8.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇵🇾 Paraguay||8.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇱 East Timor||7.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇹🇬 Togo||7.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇭 Philippines||7.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇺🇸 U.S.||7.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇲 Cameroon||7.6%||Sep 2022|
|🇳🇴 Norway||7.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇬 Singapore||7.5%||Sep 2022|
|🇿🇦 South Africa||7.5%||Sep 2022|
|🇸🇻 El Salvador||7.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇲🇹 Malta||7.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇺 Australia||7.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇪🇸 Spain||7.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇩 Chad||7.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||7.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇧🇿 Belize||7.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇳🇦 Namibia||7.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇼 Aruba||7.0%||Sep 2022|
|🇨🇦 Canada||6.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇱🇺 Luxembourg||6.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇴 Somalia||6.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇮🇳 India||6.8%||Oct 2022|
|🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||6.8%||Jun 2022|
|🇬🇾 Guyana||6.5%||Sep 2022|
|🇱🇷 Liberia||6.5%||Jul 2022|
|🇧🇷 Brazil||6.5%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇸 Bahamas||6.3%||Aug 2022|
|🇨🇮 Ivory Coast||6.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇹🇹 Trinidad and Tobago||6.3%||Aug 2022|
|🇫🇷 France||6.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇩🇯 Djibouti||6.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇷 Puerto Rico||6.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇧🇹 Bhutan||6.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇧🇹 Qatar||6.0%||Sep 2022|
|🇹🇭 Thailand||6.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇿 Swaziland||5.8%||Aug 2022|
|🇮🇩 Indonesia||5.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||5.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇯 Tajikistan||5.7%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||5.5%||Jun 2022|
|🇰🇭 Cambodia||5.4%||Jul 2022|
|🇮🇶 Iraq||5.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇯🇴 Jordan||5.2%||Oct 2022|
|🇫🇯 Fiji||5.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇮🇱 Israel||5.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇳🇨 New Caledonia||5.0%||Sep 2022|
|🇹🇿 Tanzania||4.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇲 Bermuda||4.5%||Jul 2022|
|🇪🇷 Eritrea||4.5%||Dec 2021|
|🇲🇾 Malaysia||4.5%||Sep 2022|
|🇭🇰 Hong Kong||4.4%||Sep 2022|
|🇵🇸 Palestine||4.4%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇳 Brunei||4.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇱🇾 Libya||4.3%||Sep 2022|
|🇻🇳 Vietnam||4.3%||Oct 2022|
|🇪🇨 Ecuador||4.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇧🇭 Bahrain||4.0%||Sep 2022|
|🇯🇵 Japan||3.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇰🇼 Kuwait||3.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇳🇪 Niger||3.2%||Sep 2022|
|🇲🇻 Maldives||3.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇬🇦 Gabon||3.0%||Jul 2022|
|🇱🇮 Liechtenstein||3.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||3.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇭 Switzerland||3.0%||Oct 2022|
|🇸🇨 Seychelles||2.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea||2.9%||Dec 2021|
|🇧🇴 Bolivia||2.9%||Oct 2022|
|🇹🇼 Taiwan||2.7%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇫 Central African Republic||2.7%||Dec 2021|
|🇻🇺 Vanuatu||2.7%||Mar 2022|
|🇴🇲 Oman||2.4%||Sep 2022|
|🇧🇯 Benin||2.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇨🇳 China||2.1%||Oct 2022|
|🇵🇦 Panama||1.9%||Sep 2022|
|🇲🇴 Macau||1.1%||Sep 2022|
|🇸🇸 South Sudan||-2.5%||Aug 2022|
*Inflation rates based on the latest available data.
As price pressures mount, 33 central banks tracked by the Bank of International Settlements (out of a total of 38) have raised interest rates this year. These coordinated rate hikes are the largest in two decades, representing an end to an era of rock-bottom interest rates.
Going into 2023, central banks could continue this shift towards hawkish policies as inflation remains aggressively high.
The Role of Energy Prices
Driven by the war in Ukraine, energy inflation is pushing up the cost of living around the world.
Since October 2020, an index of global energy prices—made up of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and propane—has increased drastically.
Compared to the 2021 average, natural gas prices in Europe are up sixfold. Real European household electricity prices are up 78% and gas prices have climbed even more, at 144% compared to 20-year averages.
Amid global competition for liquefied natural gas supplies, price pressures are likely to stay high, even though they have fallen recently. Other harmful consequences of the energy shock include price volatility, economic strain, and energy shortages.
“The world is in the midst of the first truly global energy crisis, with impacts that will be felt for years to come”.
-Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA
Double-Digit Inflation: Will it Last?
If history is an example, taming rising prices could take at least a few years yet.
Take the sky-high inflation of the 1980s. Italy, which managed to combat inflation faster than most countries, brought down inflation from 22% in 1980 to 4% in 1986.
If global inflation rates, which hover around 9.8% in 2022, were to follow this course, it would take at least until 2025 for levels to reach the 2% target.
It’s worth noting that inflation was also highly volatile over this decade. Consider how inflation fell across much of the rich world by 1981 but shot up again in 1987 amid higher energy prices. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell spoke to the volatility of inflation at their November meeting, indicating that high inflation has a chance of following a period of low inflation.
While the Federal Reserve projects U.S. inflation to fall closer to its 2% target by 2024, the road ahead could still get a lot bumpier between now and then.
Visualized: The Security Features of American Money
How can you tell a fake $100 bill from a real one? In this visual we break down the anatomy and security features of American money.
Visualized: The Security Features of of American Money
In 1739, Benjamin Franklin sought to tackle the issue of counterfeit money in America, using a printing press and leaves to create unique raised patterns on the colonial notes.
Almost 300 years later, Benjamin Franklin is the face of the U.S. $100 bill, and it is protected by a myriad of security features including secret images, special ink, hidden watermarks, and magnetic signatures, among others.
In this visual, we’ve broken down the $100 bill to showcase the anatomy of American currency.
The Makeup of American Money
There are 6 key features that identify real bills and protect the falsification of American money.
① Serial Numbers & EURion Constellation
The most basic form of security on an $100 bill is the serial number. Every bill has a unique number to record data on its production and keep track of how many individual bills are in circulation.
The EURion constellation is star-like grouping of yellow rings near the serial number. It is only detectable by imaging software.
② Color Changing Ink
This ink changes color at different angles thanks to small metallic flakes within the ink itself. The $100 bill, like all other paper bills in the U.S., has its value denoted in color changing ink on the bottom right-hand corner; unlike other bills, it also features a liberty bell image using the ink.
Microprinting allows for verifiable images that cannot be scanned by photocopiers or seen by the naked eye. The $100 bill has phrases like “USA 100” written invisibly in multiple places.
④ Intaglio Printing
Rather than regular ink pressed onto the paper, intaglio printing uses magnetic ink and every different bill value has a unique magnetic signature.
⑤ Security Threads & 3D Ribbons
The security thread is a clear, embedded, vertical thread running through the bill. It can only be seen under UV light, contains microprinted text specifying the bill’s value, and on each different bill value it glows a unique color.
Additionally, 3D ribbons are placed in the center of $100 bills with a pattern that slightly changes as it moves.
⑥ Paper, Fibers, & Watermarks
Because American money is made of cotton and linen, blue and red cloth fibers are woven into the material as another identifying feature. Finally, watermarks are found on most bills and can only be detected by light passing through the bill.
The Relevance of Cash
Here’s a look at the total number of each paper bill that is physically in circulation in the U.S.:
|Physical Bill||Billions of notes (2021)|
Interestingly, a number of $500-$10,000 dollar bills are in someone’s pockets. And while they are not issued anymore, the Fed still recognizes the originals of these bills that were legally put into circulation in the past.
Additionally, there is fake money passing hands in the U.S. economy. Being the most widely-accepted currency in the world, it’s no wonder many try to falsely replicate American money. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, there are approximately $70 million in counterfeit bills currently circulating in the country.
Finally, a natural question arises: how many people still use cash anyways?
Well, a study from Pew Research Center found that it while it is a dwindling share of the population, around 58% of people still use cash for some to all of their weekly purchases, down from 70% in 2018 and 75% in 2015.
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