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

Good Question

By Jeff Wagner

/ CBS Minnesota

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.

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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? ›

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.

How did the U.S. debt get so high? ›

The debt grew steadily into the 20th century and was roughly $22 billion after the country financed its involvement in World War I. Notable recent events triggering large spikes in the debt include the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the 2008 Great Recession, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did America get in so much debt? ›

Nearly every year, the government spends more than it collects in taxes and other revenue, resulting in a deficit. (The debt ceiling, set by Congress, caps how much the U.S. can borrow to pay for its remaining bills.) The national debt, now at a historic high, is the buildup of its deficits over time.

When did the U.S. 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.

How do you think the U.S. can reduce its debt? ›

Interest Rates

Maintaining interest rates at low levels can help stimulate the economy, generate tax revenue, and, ultimately, reduce the national debt. Lower interest rates make it easier for individuals and businesses to borrow money for goods and services, which creates jobs and increases tax revenues.

Can America pay off its 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 United States owe money to? ›

In total, other territories hold about $7.4 trillion in U.S. debt. Japan owns the most at $1.1 trillion, followed by China, with $859 billion, and the United Kingdom at $668 billion. In isolation, this $7.4 trillion amount is a lot, said Scott Morris, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

How much does China owe US? ›

The United States pays interest on approximately $850 billion in debt held by the People's Republic of China. China, however, is currently in default on its sovereign debt held by American bondholders.

What would happen if the US paid off its debt? ›

Answer and Explanation:

If the U.S. was to pay off their debt ultimately, there is not much that would happen. Paying off the debt implies that the government will now focus on using the revenue collected primarily from taxes to fund its activities.

Who owns U.S. debt by country? ›

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).

What country has the least debt? ›

Countries with the Lowest National Debt
  • Brunei. 3.2%
  • Afghanistan. 7.8%
  • Kuwait. 11.5%
  • Democratic Republic of Congo. 15.2%
  • Eswatini. 15.5%
  • Palestine. 16.4%
  • Russia. 17.8%

How long will it take to pay off the national debt? ›

It's 22% higher than the U.S. gross national product as of June 30 (about $27 trillion). It's six times the U.S. debt figure in 2000 ($5.6 trillion). Paid back interest-free at the rate of $1 million an hour, $33 trillion would take more than 3,750 years.

Which country has the highest debt? ›

At the top is Japan, whose national debt has remained above 100% of its GDP for two decades, reaching 255% in 2023.

How to fix the US economy? ›

Governance and institutions can be improved by simplifying business regulations and licensing, enhancing the country's legal system, streamlining the system of tax administration, and raising salaries for government staff in charge of providing vital services while limiting employment in the public sector to business ...

Is the US debt really that important? ›

A nation saddled with debt will have less to invest in its own future. Rising debt means fewer economic opportunities for Americans. Rising debt reduces business investment and slows economic growth. It also increases expectations of higher rates of inflation and erosion of confidence in the U.S. dollar.

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.

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.

Why is the US budget deficit so high? ›

A $171 billion net decline in individual tax receipts compared to the prior year is the largest contributor to the deficit. Other factors include higher interest payments, higher Medicare and Medicaid spending, higher Social Security spending, decline in Federal Reserve remittances and FDIC bank rescues.

What country has the highest debt? ›

At the top is Japan, whose national debt has remained above 100% of its GDP for two decades, reaching 255% in 2023.

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