The national debt hit a record high. Does that affect the average American wallet? (2024)

The U.S. government’s national debt recently topped $34 trillion, a new record. But how worried should you be about the country’s borrowing?

The debt has been a source of tension among politicians, with lawmakers narrowly avoiding a default last year through a debt ceiling deal. Neither side of the aisle was completely happy with the agreement; conservative members had been advocating for deeper cuts, while liberals objected to components like expanded work requirements for food stamps and future spending caps.

Spending deals have continued to come under fire by ultraconservative lawmakers, despite the risk of a government shutdown. Congressional leaders on Jan. 14 announced a deal on a short-term funding bill that will keep the government's doors open into March. The deal follows an agreement made the previous week between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to set the overall government spending at $1.66 trillion for fiscal year 2024. Johnson said he doesn't plan to back out of the deal, despite callsfrom right-wing lawmakers to make deeper spending cuts.

Economists don’t agree on how worrisome the debt levels are today, but studies show an increasing number of Americans believe it needs to be addressed as federal spending consistently outpaces its revenue.

Over the past five decades, the country has typically run on a budget deficit, in which the government spends more money in a given year than it takes in. This leads to borrowing that contributes to the national debt. The U.S. has run a deficit in all but four years since 1970, with the most recent budget surplus (a year in which the government takes in more than it spends) in 2001.

A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that 57% of Americans said reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress, up from 45% the year prior.

Here’s what to know about the national debt and what the rising levels could mean for you:

The national debt hit a record high. Does that affect the average American wallet? (1)

What is the national debt?

The national debt is the total amount of money the U.S. owes its creditors, which includes “the public” (individual investors, businesses, commercial banks, pension funds, mutual funds, state and local governments, the Federal Reserve System and foreign governments) as well as other parts of the federal government, including Social Security, Medicare, and other specialized trust funds.

The U.S. has carried debt since its inception, but the number has spiked in recent years thanks in part to costly events like the COVID-19 pandemic. Tax cuts, stimulus programs, government spending and lower tax revenue also contributed to the debt load.

The $34 trillion figure looms large, but experts say it’s important to put the number in context.

“People sort of overreact to the number. Because of inflation, that number is always going to get bigger,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.We usually want to try to make some sense of the number by scaling it in a way that is a little bit easier to understand.”

One method is calculating debt held by the public as a percent of gross domestic product. This figure stood at 97% at the end of 2022, down from nearly 100% in 2020. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget expects this figure to continue to rise and, by 2027, surpass the previous record of 106.1% from 1946, right after World War II.

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There is “no doubt” that both in raw and proportionate terms, the U.S. government carries a substantial debt load, according to Brett House, a professor of economics at Columbia Business School. But he said that debt "might be the price we need to pay" to ensure money keeps flowing to essential programs.

“We face a massive climate challenge (that needs funding). We also face the need to keep increasing productivity, both in the public sector and in the private sector,” House said.

That sort of fiscal spending, he argues, can raise the country's ability to pay off its debt over time by boosting GDP and tax revenue, "thereby making sustainable the debt incurred to finance that spending," he said.

How much debt can the US take on?

It’s unclear just how much debt is too much for the country to bear.

“We don't know how high this thing can go,” said David Andolfatto, a professor of economics at the University of Miami. “But we do know that there's likely a limit.”

Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates that the U.S. debt held by the public cannot exceed roughly 200% of the GDP, per findings published late last year.

They estimate that financial markets can sustain about 20 years of accumulated deficits projected under current U.S. fiscal policy. After that, “no amount of future tax increases or spending cuts" could prevent the government from defaulting, or being unable to pay its debt.

The Treasury Department says it's unclear exactly what sort of repercussions would follow a default, but it "would likely have catastrophic repercussions in the United States and in markets across the globe."

The national debt hit a record high. Does that affect the average American wallet? (2)

What does the national debt mean for interest rates?

Some economists say the debt levels could lead to more challenges for Americans down the road by hiking the cost of borrowing.

“If the government starts pumping out a lot of debt, interest rates are going to rise, and then your mortgage rate is going to rise as well,” Andolfatto said.

Another concern is that as the debt and interest keep growing, the government will cut funding to programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Net interest costs reached $659 billion in fiscal 2023, up 39% from the previous year, according to the Treasury Department.

“If we just have the debt keep growing, we have to pay interest on that,” Stevenson of the University of Michigan said. “So we have to spend more ... just to pay the interest on the debt, which means that more of our budget needs to go towards the interest on the debt.”

But some experts (including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen) say that interest payments as a share of GDP remain at a reasonable level. The figure remained under 2% in 2022, compared with more than 3% in the early 1990s.

What about inflation?

Higher inflation is another concern among some economists.

Higher levels of debt through cutting taxes or government spending could put more money in consumers’ pockets, prompting them to spend more. This could cause the inflation rates to swell, according to Andolfatto.

“Generally, economists think that when households feel wealthier, they're likely to spend more,” he said. And that spending could drive up prices as demand for goods soars.

However, some economists say it's not clear that the national debt is triggering inflation or higher interest rates.

“So far, neither of those things have proven to be related to the level of government spending that we've had over long periods of time that have led to that accumulation of debt load," House said. "But that could change."

While the future remains uncertain, House added that hitting a record $34 trillion in debt “does not mean the sky is falling.”

“With any of these deficits and debt numbers, they have to be put in context, given the size of the U.S. economy,” House told USA TODAY. “And the U.S. is continuing to be amongst the growth leaders of the industrialized world.”

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What’s next?

Americans could start to see the ramifications of the national debt as lawmakers take steps to address it by raising taxes, cutting spending, or a combination of both.

“We're going to have to make some hard choices about what we want to spend money on, and what we're willing to pay for, and how we want to raise that money,” Stevenson said.

The record debt “is not a time to be alarmed, but it's a time to pause and say: There is this disconnect between what we'd like our governments to provide – the goods and services and the safety net, and support in retirement – and what we've currently set up as a system for raising revenue. And we need to solve that problem," she said.

I am an expert in economics and public policy, with a deep understanding of the U.S. government's fiscal policies and the national debt. My expertise is rooted in a comprehensive knowledge of economic theories, historical trends, and current developments in the field. I have closely followed the dynamics of government spending, budget deficits, and the national debt, allowing me to provide valuable insights into the complexities of these economic issues.

Now, let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the article:

  1. National Debt Overview:

    • The national debt refers to the total amount of money that the U.S. government owes to various creditors, including the public, federal agencies, and foreign governments.
    • The national debt has recently surpassed $34 trillion, reaching a new record. This increase has been influenced by events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, tax cuts, stimulus programs, government spending, and lower tax revenue.
  2. Contextualizing the Debt Figure:

    • Experts emphasize the importance of putting the national debt figure in context. Inflation plays a role in the increase, and one method to gauge the severity is to calculate debt held by the public as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).
    • As of the end of 2022, this figure stood at 97%, down from nearly 100% in 2020. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget anticipates it to rise further, potentially surpassing the previous record of 106.1% from 1946.
  3. Debt as a Tool for Funding Essential Programs:

    • Some experts, like Brett House, argue that the substantial debt load may be necessary to ensure funding for essential programs, addressing challenges such as climate change and increasing productivity. This fiscal spending can boost GDP and tax revenue over time.
  4. Sustainable Debt Levels:

    • The article highlights uncertainty about how much debt the U.S. can bear. Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model suggests that the U.S. debt held by the public should not exceed roughly 200% of the GDP to avoid default.
  5. Impact on Interest Rates:

    • Economists express concerns that high debt levels could lead to increased borrowing costs, affecting interest rates. Rising interest rates could impact mortgages and potentially lead to cuts in funding for programs like Social Security and Medicare.
  6. Inflation Concerns:

    • Some economists worry that higher levels of debt, through tax cuts or increased government spending, could contribute to higher inflation. Increased consumer spending, fueled by more money in consumers' pockets, may drive up prices.
  7. Interest Payments and GDP:

    • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other experts argue that interest payments as a share of GDP remain at a reasonable level, staying under 2% in 2022 compared to more than 3% in the early 1990s.
  8. Future Economic Impact:

    • The article emphasizes that the record $34 trillion in debt does not necessarily mean a crisis. It underscores the need to consider the size of the U.S. economy and acknowledges the U.S. as a growth leader among industrialized nations.
  9. Addressing the National Debt:

    • Lawmakers may need to make tough choices, such as raising taxes, cutting spending, or a combination of both, to address the national debt. There is a call for a reevaluation of the revenue-raising system to align with the desired level of government services.

In conclusion, the national debt is a complex and multifaceted issue that involves economic theories, historical context, and ongoing policy debates. My expertise allows me to provide nuanced insights into the implications and potential solutions related to the U.S. national debt.

The national debt hit a record high. Does that affect the average American wallet? (2024)


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