Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high? (2024)

Good Question

By Jeff Wagner

/ CBS Minnesota

Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high?

MINNEAPOLIS — If you wince when look at your monthly credit card bill, you might not believe what the U.S. government has racked up.

The national debt now tops more than $34 trillion. That's a new record difficult to comprehend — and there are no signs of slowing it down.

How did the debt get so high? And will it need to be paid off?

Well, that goal might be wishful thinking.

The debt is one of the rare times people have a chance to use the word "trillion" in a sentence without exaggerating some number.

It stands at $34,009,690,055,595 as of Jan. 9. Elon Musk, the world's richest person, is worth more than $241 billion. You'd need at least 140 of him to equal the debt.

"The first thing is about one-fourth to one-third of it doesn't count," said Christopher Phelan, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. "It's debt that's held by another part of the government. So, it would be like the wife owing the husband money. It doesn't affect the household. But the rest of it is still a huge number."


How did the U.S. accrue such a huge debt? One of the main culprits is consistently overspending. When the federal government spends more than its budget, it creates a deficit. In the fiscal year of 2023, it spent about $381 billion more than it collected in revenues.

To pay that deficit, the government borrows money. That can happen by selling marketable securities like treasury bonds. The national debt is the accumulation of the borrowed money, plus interest.

"Right now the federal government is spending 1.5 times as much as its taking in. So, an analogy that I'd like to give is imagine that a couple is making $80,000 between the two of them and spending $120,000 a year," said Phelan. We asked him if the U.S. is the equivalent of a person who only makes the minimum payments on a credit card. Phelan took it a step further saying, "The U.S. is like somebody who makes less than the minimum payment on their credit card."

The country was literally built on debt. It was $75 million in the red after the Revolutionary War thanks to loans from investors and countries like France.

The Civil War led a to a huge spike, raising the debt from $65 million in 1860 to nearly $3 billion in 1865 when the war ended. Costly wars proved to be a theme in our nation's history. The debt was at $49 billion right before the U.S. entered World War II. When the war ended, it was $260 billion. It began rising at a fast rate in the 1980's and was accelerated through events like the Iraq Wars and the 2008 Great Recession. Most recently, the debt made another big jump thanks to the pandemic with the federal government spending significantly more than it took in to keep the country running.

MORE NEWS:All-women, racially diverse St. Paul City Council sworn in Tuesday

Who do we owe the money to? "Mostly ourselves," said Phelan. "A lot of pension funds own government debt, money market funds own government debt and then people own those money market funds." The U.S. also has debts to other countries.

Where does the money come from that would go towards paying off the debt? It ultimately comes down to the U.S. taxpayers. That means in order to pay it off, or at least make a larger dent in the debt, the federal government would have to raise taxes and cut spending. "The problem is way bigger than if we just cut foreign aid," said Phelan.

With such a high debt, how does the country function? Phelan said it comes down to the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio. That equation shows a country's ability to pay down its debt. "This ratio is considered a better indicator of a country's fiscal situation than just the national debt number because it shows the burden of debt relative to the country's total economic output and therefore its ability to repay it," according to the U.S. Treasury's website.

The current ratio in the U.S. is about 123 percent as of Sept. 2023. Two decades earlier in 2003, it was down to 60 percet. According to CEIC, the highest the ratio ever reached in the U.S. was 130.6 percent in March 2021, roughly one year into the pandemic.

While the ratio remains high for the country, Phelan said other countries are worse off, yet continue to run. Japan has a debt to GDP ratio that's well over 200 percent, but that doesn't mean countries should comfortably operate at those levels for a long time. "There is a limit, and it's determined by when potential bond buyers say 'I don't think I'm gonna get the money back.' And they demand a huge interest rate for risk of not getting the money back," said Phelan, adding how that concern hasn't happened yet for the U.S.

  • Debt Ceiling
  • National Debt

Jeff Wagner

Jeff Wagner joined the WCCO-TV team in November 2016 as a general assignment reporter, and now anchors WCCO's Saturday evening newscasts. Although he's new to Minnesota, he's called the Midwest home his entire life.

Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high? (2024)


Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high? ›

It began rising at a fast rate in the 1980's and was accelerated through events like the Iraq Wars and the 2008 Great Recession. Most recently, the debt made another big jump thanks to the pandemic with the federal government spending significantly more than it took in to keep the country running.

What caused the US to have so much debt? ›

Tax cuts, stimulus programs, increased government spending, and decreased tax revenue caused by widespread unemployment generally account for sharp rises in the national debt. Comparing a country's debt to its gross domestic product (GDP) reveals the country's ability to pay down its debt.

Why is America's debt so high? ›

Years of elevated budget deficits, exacerbated by massive federal spending during the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken the debt to historic levels: totaling more than $26 trillion in 2023, U.S. federal government debt is now at its highest percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) since World War II.

Who owns over 70% of the U.S. debt? ›

At the end of September 2023, domestic creditors held 77 percent of the outstanding debt held by the public. Foreign creditors held the remaining 23 percent.

When did the US get most of its debt? ›

The buildup to World War II brought the debt up another order of magnitude from $51 billion in 1940 to $260 billion following the war. After this period, the debt's growth closely matched the rate of inflation until the 1980s, when it again began to increase rapidly.

Why doesn't the US pay off its debt? ›

"Governments, then, must service their debts – pay interest and repay principal when bonds come due – but they don't necessarily have to pay them off; they can issue new bonds to pay principal on old bonds and even borrow to pay interest as long as overall debt doesn't rise too much faster than revenue," he added.

What are 3 causes of the US national debt? ›

Federal spending — driven by rising healthcare costs, demographics, and interest payments on the national debt — is paired with revenues that are insufficient to meet the commitments that have been made.

Can the US get out of debt? ›

Under current policy, the United States has about 20 years for corrective action after which no amount of future tax increases or spending cuts could avoid the government defaulting on its debt whether explicitly or implicitly (i.e., debt monetization producing significant inflation).

Who does the US owe money to? ›

The public includes foreign investors and foreign governments. These two groups account for 30 percent of the debt. Individual investors and banks represent 15 percent of the debt. The Federal Reserve is holding 12 percent of the treasuries issued.

What country is not in debt? ›

The 20 countries with the lowest national debt in 2022 in relation to gross domestic product (GDP)
CharacteristicNational debt in relation to GDP
Macao SAR0%
Brunei Darussalam2.06%
Hong Kong SAR4.27%
9 more rows
Apr 10, 2024

What would happen if China called in US debt? ›

Consequences of Owing Debt to the Chinese

If China called in all of its U.S. holdings, the U.S. dollar would depreciate, whereas the yuan would appreciate, making Chinese goods more expensive.

What country owes the US the most money? ›

As a result, totals from January 2023 are lower than reported. As of January 2023, the five countries owning the most US debt are Japan ($1.1 trillion), China ($859 billion), the United Kingdom ($668 billion), Belgium ($331 billion), and Luxembourg ($318 billion).

Does any country owe the US money? ›

China owes the United States $1.3 trillion, which is the most debt out of all the countries that are its debtors. Japan was the primary debt holder until 2008, but now comes in second place, with $1.2 trillion. Other countries with outstanding U.S. debt include Russia, India and South Korea.

How will the US pay its debt? ›

It's the amount of money that the U.S. government has borrowed (plus interest on those borrowings) to cover the outstanding costs it has incurred and which tax revenues aren't enough to pay off. The government borrows money to pay obligations by issuing Treasury bonds, notes, bills, and other marketable securities.

Has the US ever been debt free? ›

However, President Andrew Jackson shrank that debt to zero in 1835. It was the only time in U.S. history when the country was free of debt.

Which country has highest debt? ›

Profiles of Select Countries by National Debt
  • Japan. Japan has the highest percentage of national debt in the world at 259.43% of its annual GDP. ...
  • United States. ...
  • China. ...
  • Russia.

When was the last time the US did not have a deficit? ›

The terms “national deficit”, “federal deficit” and “U.S. deficit” have the same meaning and are used interchangeably by the U.S. Treasury. A surplus occurs when the government collects more money than it spends. The last surplus for the federal government was in 2001.

How much money does the US owe in debt and why? ›

The $34 trillion gross federal debt includes debt held by the public as well as debt held by federal trust funds and other government accounts. In very basic terms, this can be thought of as debt that the government owes to others plus debt that it owes to itself.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duncan Muller

Last Updated:

Views: 5834

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (79 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duncan Muller

Birthday: 1997-01-13

Address: Apt. 505 914 Phillip Crossroad, O'Konborough, NV 62411

Phone: +8555305800947

Job: Construction Agent

Hobby: Shopping, Table tennis, Snowboarding, Rafting, Motor sports, Homebrewing, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Duncan Muller, I am a enchanting, good, gentle, modern, tasty, nice, elegant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.