Deep into the red: US national debt per family, 1816 to 2016

In the United States, federal government debt is nearly $20 trillion. That works out to about $62,000 per person, or just under $250,000 for a hypothetical family of four. Adjusted for inflation, debt has doubled since 2002, and is five times higher than in 1982.

The graph above shows the increasing size of the US national debt. The time-frame is 1816 to 2016. The units are US dollars, adjusted for inflation. In the graph, some conflict periods are highlighted in a contrasting colour. Wars have caused rapid increases in government debt. Indeed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2002-2014) played significant roles in creating the unprecedented level of debt US families now must carry. Other factors include a financial meltdown and bailout, and tax cuts that eroded revenues and forced governments to fund a greater portion of their services with borrowed money. As visible in the graph, 1982 marks the beginning of the recent phase of debt expansion. That is also the beginning of the modern era of tax cutting—the implementation of the Reagan tax cuts. US citizens have enjoyed tax cuts, but have yet to pay for them.

The graph shows that periods of increasing national debt (the Civil War, WW I, and WW II) were followed by periods of declining debt. The question now is this: Does the US economy retain enough vigour, and do US citizens and businesses retain enough good sense and discipline, to pay down $20 trillion in federal government debt, trillions more in personal debt, and trillions more in city, county, and state debts? It is never wise to bet against America. But de-industrialization, rising income inequality, world-leading incarceration rates, uncontrolled gun crime, Detroit and similar rustbelt cities, legislative gridlock, crumbling infrastructure, and a retreat into ideology all raise serious concerns.

For comparison, Canadian national debt works out to about $80,000 (Cdn.) per hypothetical family of four. Canadians, however, must not feel in any way superior or safe, because the Canadian and US economies are so tightly tied. Rising US debt is a concern for all the world’s citizens.

Graph sources: U.S. Department of the Treasury, “TreasuryDirect: Historical Debt Outstanding–Annual”