US National Debt by Year – Statistics & Facts


The growing debt of the United States has been a matter of discussion for several years now. Given the country’s position as the world’s biggest economy, this issue has an impact on everyone’s lives. 

These essential statistics on the US national debt by year give a detailed understanding of the issue. How and why has the US national debt grown over the years? What is the current situation? What risks, if any, could come about as a result of this growing national debt? Read on to learn the answers to all these questions and more.

Stats on the US National Debt by Year (Editor’s Choice)

  • The US federal debt in 2020 reached $26.9 trillion.
  • The US national debt more than doubled from $10 trillion in 2008 to $22.7 trillion in 2019.
  • In 2020, the US will pay $479 billion in interest on debt owed to the public.
  • In 2018, the US national debt was 104.26% of the country’s GDP.
  • Interest payments are the US government’s 4th largest budgetary expense as of 2019.
  • The US has had a federal budget deficit in 45 of the last 49 years.
  • In dollar terms, the US president that grew the debt burden the most was Barack Obama.
  • Budget deficit under President Trump is on track to rise to $1 trillion in 2020.
  • The public debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise to nearly 100% by 2028.

General US National Debt Statistics

1. The outstanding national debt of the USA in 2019 was $22.72 trillion.

The growing national debt of the US has been a matter of concern for a long time now. The annual national debt figures show that this problem has become particularly grave since the recession of 2008. The US national debt in 2008 was $10 trillion and has more than doubled since. Note that the US government’s fiscal year ends in September.


American National Debt in 2020

2. In 2020, the total US national debt hit $26.9 trillion. 

The main reason for the growth of US debt over the years has been the spending on new governmental programs coupled with tax cuts. In 2020, however, the main factor was the government’s COVID-19 response. The national debt is a combination of debt owed to the public and intragovernmental debt. The value of the former in 2020 was $21 trillion (78%) and that of the latter was $6.9 trillion (22%). Despite widespread worry about America’s growing debt, the concerned authorities have failed to control the rising figure.


3. In 2020, the US will pay $479 billion in interest on debt owed to the public.

One of the greatest problems with having a large amount of debt owed to the public is the annual expenditure on interest payments. With the national debt year by year growing, this expenditure is also on the rise. The USA’s annual interest payment is larger than the entire GDP of over 160 countries. In 2020, this payment also accounts for over 10% of the federal budget, taking away money from more important expenditures.

(The Balance)

4. Adding unfunded obligations takes the federal government’s total obligations to $62 trillion.

While unfunded obligations, such as mandatory payments for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, are not counted as part of current US debt by the US Treasury, they are additional payouts that will need to be funded through taxes or borrowing. Approximately $7.7 trillion related to Social Security and $38.2 trillion related to Medicare and Medicaid take the total obligations of the US government to nearly $62 trillion.

(Peter G. Peterson Foundation)

5. The US per capita national debt in 2019 stood at $69,042.

It’s also worrisome that the country’s per capita debt has climbed more than twice since 2008 when it was $33,031, and more than three times since 2000 when it stood at $20,141. With the US debt year by year growing, in 2019, the nation’s debt per capita exceeded its GDP per capita, which is $65,111. The country’s gross national product per capita meanwhile stands at about $64,000.


6. In 2018, the US national debt was 104.26% of the country’s GDP.

A high debt-to-GDP ratio is generally considered an indication that it will be difficult for the country to repay all its debt. Typically, a country’s national debt rises in times of war or recession. The ratio of US debt to GDP reached its peak right after World War II (113%) but fell over the next few decades. Estimates currently place it at about 108% for 2020. 


7. The US has the 13th highest national debt to GDP ratio in the world.

The country with the highest debt-to-GDP value is Japan (237.69%). The remaining countries in the top 10 are Sudan (207%), Greece (176.64%), Eritrea (165.11%), Lebanon (155.1%), Italy (133.15%), Cabo Verde (123.47%), Portugal (117.55%), Barbados (115.41%), Singapore (114.1%), Mozambique (108.82%), and Bhutan (108.64%). Japan’s total national debt is valued at about $10.5 trillion. Despite the current US national debt trend, the country doesn’t even rank among the top 10 in terms of the debt in relation to GDP.


8. The statutory limit on the US federal debt was raised to $21.9 trillion in August 2019.

The national debt limit or debt ceiling is a legislative cap on the debt that can be incurred by the US Treasury. It curbs the money the federal government can borrow to pay for its expenditures. This limit has been consistently increased over the past three decades. The debt ceiling, which, according to US federal debt by year numbers, stood at $4.1 trillion in 1990, had risen to $11.3 trillion by 2008, and to $16.3 trillion by 2011.


9. Interest payments were the US government’s 4th largest budgetary expense as of 2019.

The list of budgetary expenses for 2019 shows that debt interest is a greater expense for the US government than the money spent income security, federal pensions, food and agriculture subsidies, among other items. Only Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and defense and war expenditures cost more than debt interest.


10. The 10-year Treasury note yield fell below the 1%-mark for the first time in national debt history in early 2020.

The 10-year Treasury note yield is the interest the US government pays on its securities maturing in 10 years. The impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on financial markets and other factors like the mortgage refinancing boom pushed the yield to 0.7% in early 2020. While this reflects a poor outlook for the world economy among global investors, it also lowers the interest burden of the US government. The current United States debt is manageable as long as the interest remains low and the economy keeps growing.


11. As of February 2020, the high federal debt and the budget deficit were considered the 2nd most important economic problem according to American citizens.

In this, it ranks above other economic problems like unemployment, income inequality, taxes, wage issues, and the high cost of living. The problem also ranks near the top of economic issues in monthly polls, appearing as a source of worry for plenty of US citizens. There are, however, several non-economic problems, such as poor leadership, immigration, healthcare, and climate change, which rank above the concern over the current national debt in the minds of Americans.


12. Since 1971, the US has seen budget deficits in 45 of 49 years, while there were only 41 years with a deficit in the preceding 70 years.

With the US national debt linked to the country’s budget deficit, it is important to understand how these deficits became more common. Before 1971, those occurred only during economic downturns or wars. In response to accelerating inflation in the late 1960s, President Richard Nixon decoupled the value of the US dollar from gold in 1971. The amount of currency that could be printed and spent had previously been limited, keeping the US debt over time largely in check. 


13. If the US government focused all of its income on debt repayment, it could pay off all of its debts in about 7 years.

The latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office indicate that the US government’s 2019 revenues from taxes, fines, investments, and other sources of income amounted to $3.5 trillion, or about 16.3% of the GDP. So, while the US national debt by year might seem very high in dollar terms, the US government’s revenue generation levels show that it remains serviceable, with the economy expanding at an equally fast rate. This is also why many economists do not consider the country’s rising debt that big of an issue.


14. While the US has never formally defaulted on its federal debt, technically speaking, it did default once in April 1979.

In 1979, the US defaulted on some T-bills, eventually making the payment after a short delay. This had the effect of increasing the interest rates by about 60 basis points, which remained elevated for several months. Interest rates are much lower now compared to those seen over the US debt history; however, given the huge principal, even a sign of default or a delay could significantly bump up the interest expenditure of the country.

(The Wall Street Journal)

Debt Held by Foreign Creditors

15. 28.86% of the US government debt was owned by foreign and international institutions in 2019.

As of December 2019, the largest component of the US government debt — 36.03% — was owned by the federal reserve and government accounts. However, it is the foreign-held debt that could be a matter of concern. According to the national debt chart, 11.63% was held by other investors, 10.11% by mutual funds, 3.19% by private pension funds, 2.86% by state and local governments, and 4.02% by depository institutions.


16. Japan is the largest holder of US treasury securities, valued at $1.15 trillion in December 2019.

Other countries with significant holdings are China ($1.07 trillion), the United Kingdom ($332.6 billion), Brazil ($281.9 billion), and Ireland ($281.8 billion). The large foreign holdings of the national debt of the United States leave the country vulnerable in the event of a shock, such as a collapse in housing prices or an extreme national security breach. There are other concerns, as well, when foreign countries, including potentially antagonistic ones, hold a large portion of the country’s securities.


17. The increase in Japan’s US national debt holdings in 2019 was the largest since 2013.

Japan increased its US national debt holdings to the highest level in two years to become the largest holder in 2019, surpassing China, and accounting for nearly 17% of the US foreign debt. Investing in US debt is attractive for Tokyo because Japan suffers from a low and negative yield market. 


18. China has held more than $1 trillion in US national debt since 2010.

The manner in which the US Department of Treasury measures debt changed in 2010, which makes the comparison with debt holdings before 2010 difficult. Holding a large amount of US Treasury bonds has helped China keep its currency undervalued. Beijing, however, has been trimming its holdings over the last two years, and if it calls in its debt in large amounts, US interest rates would rise and slow down economic growth.

(The Balance)

National Debt by President

19. In terms of dollar value, Barack Obama was the US President who grew the debt burden the most.

President Obama added $8.59 trillion to the nation’s debt during his two terms. Both he and President George W. Bush, who added the second-greatest amount to the US national debt, had to fight the 2008 recession and also incur higher mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare. The $831-billion economic stimulus package, tax cuts worth $858 billion, increased defense spending to $855 billion, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act expenses were some of the key reasons for the continuous increase in national debt per year during President Obama’s terms.

(The Balance)

20. In percentage terms, the US president who grew the debt burden the most was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

While the US national debt climbed by only $236 billion in dollar terms under President Roosevelt, the percentage increase was 1,048%. The two most significant expenses under FDR were the New Deal following the Great Depression and World War II. Similarly, the second-highest debt addition in percentage terms was under President Woodrow Wilson because of World War I. 

(The Balance)

21. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the US more than $2 trillion.

Wars cost money, fuelling the growth in the US debt by year. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both launched under President George W. Bush after 9/11, have cost at least $1.1 trillion and $1 trillion, respectively, over their entire duration, and are two of the biggest reasons for the 101% increase in US national debt under President Bush. Partly because of these wars, military spending also rose to a record level of $800 billion a year, putting further pressure on the US national debt.

(The Balance)

22. The US budget deficit increased to $984 billion in 2019 from $585 billion in 2016.

One of the major reasons for the rise in the federal debt by year is that the expenditure planned by the federal government exceeds the income generated through taxes. Tax cuts have been a major source of this budget deficit. Under President Trump, there have been further major tax cuts, resulting in the budget deficit reaching 4.7% of the GDP in 2019. The actual budget deficit figures for 2019-2021 will likely be roughly twice the forecast of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) before President Trump’s inauguration.

(Congressional Budget Office)

23. Budget deficit under President Trump is on track to rise to $1 trillion in 2020.

Donald Trump promised to eliminate all of the national debt over time during his campaign. However, legislation like the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, are likely to add $2.4 trillion in new debt by 2027. The US budget deficit had crossed the $1 trillion mark before in 2010, but that was during the depths of the recession when extraordinary measures were needed to revive the economy. 

(Business Insider)

US National Debt Growth Statistics

24. The ratio of US national debt held by the public to the US GDP is expected to reach nearly 100% by 2028.

According to the US debt graph based on CBO’s baseline projections, which assume that the current laws on taxation and spending will not change, the federal budget deficit is expected to increase substantially over the next few years. It will stabilize between 2023 and 2028 at high historical levels, with a corresponding negative effect on the national debt. The debt held by the public has nearly doubled in relation to the GDP since 2008, and current legislation, which has significantly reduced revenues and increased outlays, will take it close to 100%, a level not seen since World War II.

(Congressional Budget Office)

25. Data on the US national debt by year show that gross federal debt will grow to $36 trillion by 2030.

For the 2020 fiscal year, the gross federal debt, which includes both public and intragovernmental debt, is expected to rise to $23.8 trillion, with the early-2020 levels showing that the actual figures might overshoot this estimate. The current estimate of $36.2 trillion for 2030, therefore, might prove conservative unless future administrations take measures to curb the budget deficit.


26. The ratio of gross federal debt to GDP is expected to rise to 113% by 2030, as per the latest national debt by year chart.

The latest estimates suggest that the US GDP will be worth $32 trillion by 2030, resulting in a debt-to-GDP ratio matching the highest-ever historical levels seen immediately after World War II. The GDP growth has begun to slow down under President Trump because of the trade war with China. Even without a 2008-like slowdown in the world economy in the coming decade, there is a strong chance of the GDP not matching the current forecasts for 2030. In that case, the debt-to-GDP ratio could be even higher.


Consequences of Rising National Debt by Year

27. Each percentage point above a public debt-to-GDP ratio of 77% costs 0.017 percentage points of annual real growth for a developed economy.

Economists have tried to examine the effect of high public debt, particularly in relation to the country’s GDP, on the long-term growth of its economy. There is a threshold under which a high debt-to-GDP ratio helps the economy, as there is more credit available to fund growth activities. Beyond this limit, which is 77% for developed economies and 64% for emerging markets, debt can be harmful to a country’s economy. The US debt chart shows that the share held by the public crossed the 77% public debt-to-GDP mark in 2017. 

(World Bank)

28. Each $1 of new borrowing reduces total investment by $0.33.

This slowdown occurs because of a phenomenon called “crowding out,” where investors purchase government securities instead of making productive investments into buildings, machinery, equipment, software, new ventures, etc. This impacts workers’ productivity growth and, in turn, their incomes and wages. The CBO has projected that the Gross National Product per person will be about $98,000 in today’s dollars if the US national debt graph comes down to historical levels (about 40% of GDP); if the debt continues rising the way it is now, the GNP per person will be $90,000.

(Congressional Budget Office)

Consequences of US National Debt

29. Under current laws, the US national debt interest payments will exceed the spending on defense by 2025 and become the single largest government expenditure by 2050.

The US currently pays interest on its outstanding debt that is about 2% of the country’s GDP; under the current law, the CBO predicts this will rise to 3% by 2029. According to the CRFB, this will grow further to 6.3% of the GDP by 2050. As per the US national debt by year chart, the previous record-high was 3.2% of the GDP. This growing interest expenditure is expected to eclipse spending on other programs over time, including Medicaid in 2020. Interest payments already consume every dollar raised through corporate income tax, estate tax, gift tax, and federal excise taxes; with unchecked debt, by the late 2040s, interest costs will also consume all payroll tax revenue.

(Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget)

30. The US has 28% of GDP in fiscal space today to combat the next crisis; it will decline to 13% by 2029, according to a national debt graph.

“Fiscal space” refers to the extent of measures a country can take to combat a crisis like the last recession. The US was able to take on significant additional debt in 2008 because its pre-recession debt-to-GDP ratio was more manageable than it is now. However, under the current laws, this ratio is expected to grow to record levels, reducing the ability to address any unforeseen challenges. While there is no definitive measure of the fiscal space, the above figures are based on a likely scenario studied by the CRFB.

(Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget)

31. US interest spending will surpass spending on children in 2020 based on current US national debt by year figures.

Another major negative consequence of growing debt is that it takes away from the future generations to fuel consumption in the present, increasing the interest burden on those born today (who inherit $60,000 of national debt at birth). The GNP, which is a rough proxy for average income per person, is expected to keep declining in the future.

(Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget)

References: Statista, US GAOThe BalancePeter G. Peterson Foundation, Statista, StatistaStatistaStatistaForbesBarron’sGallupForbesForbesThe Wall Street JournalStatistaTreasury.govInvestopediaThe BalanceThe BalanceThe BalanceThe BalanceCongressional Budget OfficeBusiness InsiderCongressional Budget OfficeStatistaStatistaWorld Bank, Congressional Budget OfficeCommittee for a Responsible Federal BudgetCommittee for a Responsible Federal BudgetCommittee for a Responsible Federal BudgetCommittee for a Responsible Federal Budget

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