U.S. debt from the year you were born
Whether it's meant as a compliment or a diss, people often say that things are done bigger in America. American portion sizes are enormous, houses are larger here than almost anywhere else, and the national debt is the largest sovereign debt for any single country in the entire world. Debt as a percentage of GDP has grown from 17.6% in 1930 to 103.9% at end of 2017.
Before taking a closer look at how the national debt has grown and changed over time, two terms need to be defined. The U.S. debt is a measure of how much the American government owes its creditors. Two-thirds of this debt is held by the public or those who buy U.S. Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. The remaining third of this debt is intergovernmental, meaning that the government owes it to various departments who hold Government Account securities. GDP is short for gross domestic product, and is the total value of everything produced in a country.
Stacker took an in-depth look at the U.S. debt every year over the past 88 years. Using data from Treasury Direct (updated 2018) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (updated 2017) we've ranked the debt by year, starting with 1930 and finishing with 2018.
Read on to find out how war has affected our economy, which tax changes actually stimulated the economy, and what year the national debt hit the $1 trillion mark (hint: it's more recent than you think).
You may also like: States with the most debt
1930: $16.2 billion
- Nominal debt: $16.2 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $242.8 billion
- Debt / GDP: 17.6%
- Inflation rate: -2.7%
The Great Depression officially started in 1929, and by 1930 more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of all wage earning workers) were unemployed. In the midst of this steep economic downturn, the first Dust Bowl also hit the Midwest, almost completely destroying the agricultural industry in America. 1930 also saw the first shantytowns, called Hoovervilles, popping up around the country.
1931: $16.8 billion
- Nominal debt: $16.8 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $276.9 billion
- Debt / GDP: 21.7%
- Inflation rate: -8.9%
Herbert Hoover, who was in office at the start of the Great Depression, didn't do much to alleviate the crisis. Instead, he told Americans that patience and self-reliance were all that they really needed to get through this “passing incident in our national lives.” His pep talk didn't do much to reassure the masses, who would have preferred practical measures. Instead, they tightened their purse strings even more.
1932: $19.5 billion
- Nominal debt: $19.5 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $358.9 billion
- Debt / GDP: 32.8%
- Inflation rate: -10.3%
1932 saw Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected president. He campaigned mostly on the promise that he'd use the power of the government to turn the economy around and make Americans' lives better. While people still didn't have much, the hope of someone new in office who was going to make an actual change did prompt a small bump in spending.
1933: $22.5 billion
- Nominal debt: $22.5 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $437.7 billion
- Debt / GDP: 39.4%
- Inflation rate: -5.2%
By March of 1933, the economy had shrunk by 27%, the worst contraction in U.S. history. But it was also in this year that FDR's “New Deal” passed, pieces of which included banking reform laws, emergency relief programs, work relief programs, and agricultural programs. By June of 1933, FDR and Congress had passed 15 new laws (including the Home Owners' Loan Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act), which fundamentally reshaped our economy in ways we still see today.
1934: $27.1 billion
- Nominal debt: $27.1 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $505.7 billion
- Debt / GDP: 40.5%
- Inflation rate: 3.5%
While many industries experienced major shrinkage during the Great Depression, Hollywood was just at the beginning its golden age. Not many families had money to spare, but when they did they often spent it on outings to movie theaters. The studio system rose to mammoth status during this time, with major stars earning five- or six-figure salaries.
1935: $28.7 billion
- Nominal debt: $28.7 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $524.8 billion
- Debt / GDP: 38.7%
- Inflation rate: 2.6%
The second, more aggressive, half of FDR's New Deal launched in the spring of 1935. Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration provided hundreds of jobs and inspired new hope in the American people that this might all be coming to an end sooner rather than later. Also in this year, the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively.
1936: $33.8 billion
- Nominal debt: $33.8 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $608.7 billion
- Debt / GDP: 39.8%
- Inflation rate: 1%
FDR won his second term by a landslide in 1936, but not everything was looking up. On Dec. 30, 1936 the United Auto Workers (a year-old union) launched a sit-down strike at a General Motors facility in Flint, Mich. After 44 days the strike ended in success, forcing General Motors to recognize the UAW and setting a precedent for unions in hundreds of other industries.
1937: $36.4 billion
- Nominal debt: $36.4 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $633.6 billion
- Debt / GDP: 39.2%
- Inflation rate: 3.7%
A third New Deal was rolled out in 1937, but budget deficits saw this iteration get less funding than the two previous versions. Still, two major projects (the United States Housing Act which provided state-run public housing projects and the Farm Security Administration which provided loans and training for farmers) were funded. But overall, the cut in spending on the third New Deal brought the economy into a second contraction of 3.3%, which was major compared to the increases of 8.9% in 1935 and 12.9% in 1936.
1938: $37.2 billion
- Nominal debt: $37.2 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $660.3 billion
- Debt / GDP: 42.5%
- Inflation rate: -2%
1938 saw government spending cut and unemployment rise to nearly 19%. While the national debt only increased by $1 billion, fewer people were employed than in previous years. Plenty worried that the depression was only going to worsen once again.
1939: $40.4 billion
- Nominal debt: $40.4 billion
- Debt in 2018 dollars: $728.8 billion
- Debt / GDP: 43.3%
- Inflation rate: -1.3%
After nearly a decade, the dust finally began to settle in the Midwest and the Dust Bowl ended. The storms had left nearly 500,000 Americans homeless and caused a mass migration to southern California (one year saw 86,000 people immigrate to the state from the Midwest). Land values in the region decreased by as much as 30%, and some areas never fully recovered, meaning the agricultural industry still feels the lingering effects today.2018 All rights reserved.