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US Government Debt
in Recent Decades



Government debt has been getting bigger.

Debt Steadily Increasing

Government debt in the United States has steadily increased from $2 trillion in the mid 1980s to over $19 trillion today. But as a percent of GDP it has grown from 55 percent to over 100 percent of GDP today.

Chart 4.11: Government Debt in dollars

Government debt, including gross federal, state, and local, reached $3 trillion in 1987, and then breached $4 trillion in the recession year of 1990. In the 1990s debt reached $5 trillion in 1992, and $7 trillion at the peak of the business cycle in 2000. Debt breached $10 trillion in 2006 and $15 trillion in 2010. Gross debt, including all levels of government, will exceed $20 trillion in 2014.

Chart 4.12: Government Debt as Percent of GDP

Viewed as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) government debt shows a different aspect. At 55 percent of GDP in 1985, debt decreased as a percent of GDP until the mid 1990s when it peaked at 78.7 percent of GDP in 1996. Then a steady decline in debt as a percent of GDP set in for the rest of the 1990s, declining to 68.8 percent of GDP in 2000. But debt resumed a climb in the 2000s reaching 78 percent of GDP at the peak of the business cycle in 2007.

In the Crash of 2008 government debt increased sharply to bail out the banks and to provide “stimulus” to the economy. Debt reached 101 percent of GDP in 2009. But debt is expected to plateau at about 120 percent of GDP in the next few years.


Recent Debt by Government Level

Federal debt has increased sharply after the Crash of 2008.

Chart 4.13: Government Debt by Level

Federal debt stood at 42 percent of GDP in 1985. State government debt was 4.9 percent of GDP and local debt was 8.1 percent of GDP. By the mid 1990s federal debt had increased to 64 percent of GDP. State debt had increased to 5.6 percent of GDP and local debt had increased to 9.1 percent of GDP.

By 2000 federal debt had decreased to 55 percent of GDP by 2007, state debt was essentially level at 5.3 percent of GDP and local debt declined modestly to 8.8 percent of GDP. In the 2000s debt started to climb again, with federal debt reaching 62 percent of GDP by 2007. State debt was 6.5 percent of GDP and local debt was 10.1 percent of GDP in 2007.

Chart Key:
- Federal debt
- Local debt
- State debt

Then came the Crash of 2008. By 2011 federal debt had exploded to 95 percent of GDP, state debt stood at 7.3 percent of GDP and local debt increased modestly to 11.3 percent of GDP.

In the mid 2010s, federal debt is expected to stabilize at 102 percent of GDP, state debt at 6.8 percent of GDP, and local debt at 10.8 percent of GDP.

Gross vs. Net Debt

The difference between gross and net is the amount of debt held by the federal government

Chart 4.14: Recent Federal Debt

As reported by the federal government in Historical Table 7.1 of the federal budget, the gross debt of the general government is composed of three items: debt held by the Federal Reserve System and therefore monetized, debt owed to government agencies (e.g., Social Security), and debt held by the public, including foreign governments.

In 1985, the Federal Reserve System held debt amounting to 3.9 percent of GDP. Federal debt held by the federal government amounted to 7.1 percent of GDP and debt held by the public amounted to 31 percent of GDP.

Chart Key:
- Debt held by public
- Debt held by federal gov.
- Debt held by Federal Reserve

Debt monetized by the Federal Reserve System increased to over 5 percent of GDP in 1994 and slowly increased, reaching 5.6 percent of GDP before declining in 2008 to 3.4 percent of GDP. In 2009 the debt held by the Federal Reserve System had increased back to 5.5 percent.

Debt held by the government, principally IOUs to the Social Security system, has climbed steadily, exceeding 10 percent of GDP in 1988, 15 percent of GDP in 1992, and 20 percent in 1999. Debt held by the government exceeded 25 percent of GDP in 2005 and 30 percent of GDP in 2009. Debt held by the government is expected to decline in the future as a percent of GDP.

Federal debt held by the public (excluding the Federal Reserve System) amounted to 31 percent of GDP in 1985. It reached 40 percent of GDP in 1992 and peaked at 42 percent of GDP in 1995. Debt held by the public declined to 28 percent of GDP by 2000 before settling at about 29 percent of GDP till 2007. with the Crash of 2008 debt held by the public started increasing sharply, breaching 60 percent of GDP by 2014.

Recent Interest Payments

Chart 4.15: Recent Interest Payments

The burden of interest rates has declined in recent decades. Running at a little under 4 percent of GDP in the mid 1980s, the cost of interest payments began an historic decline that extended throughout the boom of the late 1990s and the recession of 2000-01. The cost of interest payments increased in the recovery of the mid 2000s, then declined back to 2 percent of GDP after the Crash of 2008.

Interest payments as a percent of GDP are expected to increase in the future, as the Federal Reserve unwinds its current “quantitative easing” and “zero interest rate policy.”

 

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Debt Data Sources

Debt data is from official government sources.
  Federal data since 1962 comes from the president’s budget.
  All other debt data comes from the US Census Bureau.

Gross Domestic Product data comes from US Bureau of Economic Analysis and measuringworth.com.

Detailed table of debt data sources here.

Federal debt data begins in 1792.

State and local debt data begins in 1890.

State and local debt data for individual states begins in 1957.

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Next Data Update

> State Finances FY13

> data update schedule.

Data Source

Source: CBO Long-Term Budget Outlook .

> data sources for other years
> data update schedule.

Federal Deficit Announced for FY14

On October 13, 2014, the US Treasury reported in its Monthly Treasury Statement for September that the federal deficit for FY14 ending September 30 was $483 billion. Here are the numbers, including total receipts, total outlays, and deficit compared with the numbers projected in the FY 15 federal budget published in February 2014:

Federal Finances
FY14 Outcomes
Budget
billions
Outcome
billions
Receipts $3,002$3,021
Outlays$3,651$3,504
Deficit$649$483

usfederalbudget.us now shows the new numbers for total FY14 outlays and receipts on its Estimate vs. Actual page.

The Monthly Treasury Statement includes "Table 9. Summary of Receipts by Source, and Outlays by Function of the U.S. Government, September 2014 and Other Periods".   This table of outlays by function makes it possible for usgovernmentspending.com to estimate outlays by "subfunction" for FY2014 by factoring budgeted amounts by the difference between budgeted and actual "function" amounts where actual outlays by subfunction cannot be gleaned from the Monthly Treasury Statement.

Final detailed FY2014 numbers will not appear until the FY2016 federal budget is published in February 2015

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