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.

As someone deeply immersed in the field of economics and public policy, I am well-versed in the complexities surrounding the U.S. national debt, a topic that has recently garnered significant attention as it surpassed the $34 trillion mark. My expertise extends from understanding the historical context of government spending to evaluating the potential implications for individuals and the broader economy. Allow me to delve into the key concepts presented in the article.

National Debt Overview:

1. Definition:

  • The national debt represents the total amount of money that the U.S. government owes to various creditors, including individual investors, businesses, banks, pension funds, government entities, and foreign governments.

2. Historical Trends:

  • The U.S. has carried debt since its inception, but recent spikes can be attributed to events like the COVID-19 pandemic, tax cuts, stimulus programs, and lower tax revenue.

3. Contextualizing the $34 Trillion Figure:

  • Experts caution against overreacting to the raw debt number, emphasizing the importance of contextualization. One method involves calculating the debt held by the public as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP).

  • Scaling the debt to GDP, it was at 97% at the end of 2022, down from nearly 100% in 2020. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget predicts further increases, reaching 106.1% by 2027.

Fiscal Policy and Debt Sustainability:

4. The Role of Fiscal Spending:

  • Some experts argue that fiscal spending can be necessary, especially for addressing pressing challenges such as climate change and increasing productivity. This spending, if managed well, can contribute to economic growth and increased tax revenue, potentially making the debt sustainable.

5. Debt Limits and Market Sustainability:

  • Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model suggests that the U.S. debt held by the public should not exceed approximately 200% of GDP to maintain market sustainability.

  • Financial markets may sustain about 20 years of accumulated deficits under current fiscal policy. Beyond that, default becomes a risk if deficits continue to accumulate.

Implications for Individuals:

6. Interest Rates:

  • Concerns exist that high debt levels could lead to increased borrowing costs for individuals. As the government accumulates debt, interest rates may rise, affecting mortgage rates and potentially leading to higher costs for consumers.

7. Net Interest Costs:

  • Net interest costs reached $659 billion in fiscal 2023, representing a 39% increase from the previous year. This raises concerns about the growing portion of the budget needed to pay off interest on the debt.

8. Social Programs and Spending Cuts:

  • There's a potential threat to social programs like Social Security and Medicare if the government opts to cut funding in response to the escalating debt burden.

Economic Factors:

9. Inflation Concerns:

  • Some economists express concerns about higher inflation resulting from increased government spending. The argument is that more money in consumers' pockets could drive up demand, potentially leading to inflation.

  • However, opinions vary, and not all experts agree that the national debt is a direct trigger for inflation or higher interest rates.

10. Growth Perspective:

  • Despite the record-breaking $34 trillion debt, some experts, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, argue that interest payments as a share of GDP remain reasonable, staying under 2% in 2022.

  • The U.S. economy continues to be among the growth leaders in the industrialized world, providing a broader context for evaluating the debt's impact.

Future Outlook:

11. Addressing the Debt:

  • Americans may witness the consequences of the national debt as lawmakers grapple with potential solutions. Options include raising taxes, cutting spending, or a combination of both.

12. Long-term Considerations:

  • The record debt level serves as a call for reflection rather than alarm, prompting discussions about aligning government services with revenue streams and addressing the fundamental issues in the current fiscal system.

In conclusion, while the $34 trillion national debt is a significant and complex issue, understanding the nuances and broader economic context is crucial for formulating informed opinions and potential solutions.

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


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