US budget deficit the year you were born
Politicians discuss the national deficit and debt on a regular basis. It’s important to know where these numbers fall, since they can help—or hinder—a president’s hopes for reelection. The national debt can also illustrate where the country stands financially, often reflecting the spending that may have shifted to ongoing wars, the cutbacks when a new president takes office, or the overall financial health of the country’s people.
In order to collect the U.S. budget deficit for every year since 1921, Stacker consulted multiple sources. Data from the Office of Management and Budget was used for fiscal years 1921 to 2015. For data from 2016 to 2019, reports from Monthly Treasury Statements were compiled by USAspending.gov. Given the uncertain circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 deficit was sourced from a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office. U.S. debt data was obtained from the Treasury Department. GDP data was obtained from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (1929-2019) and “What Was the GDP Then?” study by Samuel H. Williamson (1920-1928).
Fans of history, politics, finance, and national events will enjoy this trip through U.S. history, as the roller coaster that is the budget deficit is explored. Uncover years of budget surplus, and the falls from grace that led the country into recessions—and depressions.
Follow along as the nation fights wars, explores space, and fights for civil rights. Be reminded of the moments you can never forget, the summer you wish you could remember, and the year that started it all for you.
Start reading at the beginning, or work your way back from 2020. Follow the money, and see where it leads you.
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1921: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
- Budget surplus: $509 million (0.7% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $24 billion (32.3% of GDP)
Congress approved the burial of an unknown soldier from World War I in Arlington National Cemetery in March. It became the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, and continues to represent all American service members and their sacrifices. The same year, New York Yankee pitcher Babe Ruth broke a home-run record with 139 single career home runs.
1922: Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act
- Budget surplus: $736 million (1% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $23 billion (31% of GDP)
In an attempt to increase profits for U.S. businesses, President Warren G. Harding signed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act, which placed a large tariff on imports. It worked for a while, until foreign countries used the same tactic, raising tariffs on American imports.
1923: Yankee Stadium opens
- Budget surplus: $713 million (0.8% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $22.3 billion (25.9% of GDP)
In a much-needed distraction, Yankee Stadium opened its doors, welcoming baseball fans into the largest stadium at the time. The first game was between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
1924: Immigration stops through Ellis Island
- Budget surplus: $963 million (1.1% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $21.3 billion (24.2% of GDP)
After the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed limits on immigration, the station at Ellis Island transitioned to a place of detainment or deportation for illegal immigrants. Others arriving through New York City port were processed aboard arriving ships. In Ellis Island’s history, more than 12 million people passed through on their way to America.
1925: USS Shenandoah crashes
- Budget surplus: $717 million (0.8% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $20.5 billion (22.4% of GDP)
The U.S. Navy’s helium-filled airship, the USS Shenandoah, gained notoriety for completing a transcontinental flight in 1924. When it crashed in Ohio, killing 14 crewmembers, in 1925, it signaled the impending end of airships and a turn toward more airplane travel.
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1926: 40-hour workweek adopted
- Budget surplus: $865 million (0.9% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $19.6 billion (20.1% of GDP)
Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford announced a decision in 1926 that changed employment forever. Workers who had previously been working six days a week now worked five, eight-hour days. Other companies adopted Ford’s 40-hour work week, and the country never looked back.
1927: Great Mississippi flood
- Budget surplus: $1.2 billion (1.2% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $18.5 billion (19.2% of GDP)
Considered one of the worst natural disasters for the United States, the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 submerged 23,000 square miles of the United States under water. Nearly one million people were left without food or clean water. The flood led many to migrate north, while the government planned to build additional levees and waterways.
1928: Discovery of penicillin
- Budget surplus: $939 million (1% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $17.6 billion (17.9% of GDP)
Scottish researcher Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928 when he returned from vacation to find a mold growing on one of his culture plates. The discovery resulted in the world’s most popular antibiotic, which is still used today.
1929: Stock market crash
- Budget surplus: $734 million (0.7% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $16.9 billion (16.2% of GDP)
On Oct. 28, what went down in history as Black Monday, struck the stock market. The Dow declined 13%, and by mid-November, lost almost half its value. The market didn’t see a recovery until November 1954.
1930: Smoot-Hawley Act
- Budget surplus: $738 million (0.8% of GDP)
- Total U.S. debt: $16.2 billion (17.6% of GDP)
Responding to the stock market crash of 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley Act, which imposed additional tariffs of 20% on imported goods. As with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, foreign governments were swift to retaliate.
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