Personalizing the U.S. Debt: What’s Your Share, Youngster?

The U.S. Debt Per Person — Man, Woman, and Child

How does a voter get his or her mind around our national debt? Did its size truly register when it was $20 trillion during the 2016 election or $27 trillion during the 2020 election? Or nearly $35 trillion now? It’s in trillions. That term seems more like one used by kids to describe something beyond huge.

So!  I am presenting here our national debt PER PERSON. I haven’t seen it presented that way in the media. But we voters are all people.

The story is really about our young people. (At age 73, even folks under the age of 60 seem “young.”)

It takes time to address this challenge. However, the need to solve it is immediate.

The chart in the following link not only personalizes the national debt. It also shows the incredible burden we have placed on even the newest newborn in the U.S. I converted the historical debt amounts to September 30, 2023 dollars, taking inflation’s impact out of the picture. (September 30th marks the federal fiscal year-end.) Then I divided each year-end’s debt balance by the population at that time. (Calculation details are shown in the two links at the bottom of this post.)

The story here is the trend. The point is this. We have been ignoring the massive problem we are leaving to our children for decades. A child born in 1930 began life with a $2,400 U.S. debt burden. A child born last September started out with a $97,600 load to carry. (Of course, no newborn is in the working world yet. The U.S. debt per person solely in the adult world is rather substantially higher.)

The more adult version of a “personalized” U.S. debt burden is looking at what that obligation is for a family of four. I multiplied the individual amount by four. A family of four essentially is carrying another mortgage. That number is $390,000.

Click on the link below to find the chart showing debt-per-person since 1930. First by decades, then by year since 2000. The column on the right refers to the family of four.

USDebtPerPersonHousehold

Two observations. First, reversing our debt’s continuous growth isn’t easy, but it is an imperative we all share. Second, paying the interest and principal on this debt when due is at the top of our priorities. If we don’t pay the interest on the debt, we won’t be able to borrow. At least not at present market rates for sovereign borrowers with a high-quality credit profile. Not only would we pay more interest on more debt, but at a higher interest rate. A double whammy.

Another View: Comparing Our Debt to Our National Income

Like any household budget, the U.S.’s ability to pay the interest and principal on its debt is related to its income. The snapshot for our national income is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. Comparing debt to GDP, in other words the U.S. economy, is a standard measurement for assessing how challenging the burden might be for a country. It is expressed as a ratio — a percentage. The U.S Debt-to-GDP ratio at the end of fiscal year 2023 was 123%.

Here is a graph from the St. Louis Fed showing that ratio since World War II. 1939 to 2023. (On a PDF as I couldn’t print or share it in any other way. But legible.)

USGrossDebttoGDP1939to2023

The United States carried a high debt-to-GDP ratio after the war, similar to our present ratio. But the situation was very different. Even Republicans agreed to substantially raise tax rates to pay down that debt after the war’s end. The debt had been incurred for a single major reason — to fight the war. That level of spending stopped after the war’s end. The increase in debt in recent decades was from a variety of expenditure types — wars, financial bubbles, and social programs among others — without a decline.

When the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the debt of the United States from AAA to AA+ in August of 2011, it faced an assault from the U.S. government. S&P’s CEO resigned. The other two major rating agencies changed their outlook to negative. The Debt-to-GDP ratio at that time in 2011 was about 80%. Maybe one shouldn’t rely on those “canaries in the mine” to warn us that we are heading into choppy waters.

I’m not trying to point a finger at any party or group. I suggest looking at what’s been happening with an open mind.

Here’s a chart that summarizes the history of the annual U.S. budgets from 1980 to 2023. The numbers are from the White House Office of Management and Budget. There are three budget series. “On-Budget” which reflects the every-day operations of the government. “Off-Budget” which is largely the Social Security/Disability program because of its structure, separate from the general funds. The third is the total of the two. I added the Presidential administrations for reference.

The red shows deficits. Social Security had deficit issues before the Baby Boomers entered the workforce and in recent years is once again in deficit. (It is drawing down the Trust Fund reserves to pay benefits.) Note that the Clinton administration benefited from the Baby Boomers impact on Social Security. The Social Security surpluses offset two years’ deficits. One can see the sudden increase in deficits from the dot-com bubble’s crash in 2000, the bursting of the subprime/derivatives bubble of 2007/2008, and the recent impact of the world’s first truly global pandemic in 2020.

USBudgetHistory1980to2023

This mountain of debt is a burden we all share. Each Presidential administration had its challenges to address. We waste time and emotion trying to nail any single administration as horrid. They each have aspects to praise and to criticize. We are more likely to find the political will to address our children’s future if we look to that future and make the necessary budget cuts, shared across the entire political spectrum.

 

A Postscript from My Grandfather

My mother gave me a scrap of paper with a handwritten note. My grandfather, Charles Grant, wrote down his thoughts on “the wizards of Washington” and their budget math. He was born in the mountains of Tennessee and was largely self-educated. But he had pure common sense. A gentle giant with a big, compassionate heart. Here, for you and for my family members, is what he said. And the handwritten version. He really did write this. Charles Grant on federal spending, tax cuts, and the debt. (I’m guessing that he wrote this in 1963 or 1964, right before he died. When the post-World War II tax rates were first reduced.)

CharlesGrantonFederalDebtandSpending

CharlesGrantonFederalTaxesvsSpendingHandwritten

 

How I Removed Inflation from the Calculations

Here are a few charts to show how I removed inflation from the picture. I calculated an inflation factor by comparing the historic value of $1 million with its September 30th value in each year. (There are a number of handy inflation calculators on the internet. I used the Minneapolis Fed’s.) Then I used that number to convert the historic U.S. debt numbers to September 30, 2023 dollars. Those debt numbers are very, very large. For ease of vision, I present them in billions of dollars in the right hand column.

ConversionFactorCalculation

US DebtHistoricalRealwithConversionFactor

 

 

 

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