Deficits, Debt and Liabilities

This page was created before COVID-19 and will be updated. It presents high-level data on the U.S Government’s annual deficits, debt outstanding, balance sheet liabilities, and the present value of future, unfunded liabilities.

CBO, in its “Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook: 2020 to 2030” dated January 28, 2020, projects a $1 trillion deficit, on a modified cash basis, for 2020.  The Annual Deficit on an Accrual basis is likely to be substantially larger. For example, the 2019 deficit on a modified cash basis was $984.4 billion and $1,445.1 billion on the accrual basis.

In CBO’s projections, federal budget deficits remain large by historical standards, and federal debt grows to equal 95.6 percent of GDP by 2029 (note – CBO uses the smaller Debt Held by the Public as the numerator. Had they used Total Public Debt Outstanding the result would be approx. 125%)  Economic growth is expected to be 2.2 percent in 2020. From 2021 to 2030 economic growth is projected at an average annual rate of 1.7% – a rate that is below its long-run historical average.

Many government officials, organizations and knowledgable individuals warn the debt is on an unsustainable trajectory as it continues to outpace GDP growth.

The following table presents key amounts (in $ billions) and percentages, both actual and projected. Note: for projections the $ amount of Accrual  Deficits, Total Public Debt Outstanding, and Total Public Debt Outstanding to GDP are Not Available (“NA”). According to CBO projections, they will be greater than and, follow the annual trajectory of the amounts available.

Year Annual Deficit (Modified Cash) Annual Deficit (Accrual) Debt Held by the Public Total Public Debt Outstanding Gross Domestic Product Debt Held by the Public to GDP Total Public Debt Outstanding to GDP
1990(a) -$221 -NA N/A $2,411 $5,734 NA 42.0%
1995(a) -$164 -NA $3,604 $4,874 $7,341 49.1% 66.4%
2000(a) $236 $46 $3,405 $5,674 $9,821 34.7% 57.8%
2005(a) -$318 -$760 $4,601 $7,933 $12,446 36.9% 63.7%
2010(a) -$1,295 -$2,080 $9,023 $13,561 $14,654 62.8% 92.5%
2015(a) -$438 -$514 $13,117 $18,151 $17,810 73.6% 100.2%
2016(a) -$585 -$1,052 $14,168 $19,573 $18,407 77.0% 105.3%
2017(a) -$665 -$1,154 $14,665 $20,245 $19,178 76.5% 104.8%
2018(a) -$779 -$1,159 $15,750 $21,516 $20,236 77.8% 106.1%
2019(a) -$984 -$1,445 $16,801 $22,719 $21,220 79.2% 107.3%
2020(p) -$1,073 -NA $17,835 NA $22,111 80.7% NA
2021(p) -$1,002 -NA $18,816 NA $23,029 81.7% NA
2022(p) -$1,118 -NA $19,996 NA $23,916 83.6% NA
2023(p) -$1,114 -NA $21,144 NA $24,908 85.2% NA
2024(p) -$1,141 -NA $22,338 NA $25,724 86.8% NA
2025(p) -$1,306 -NA $23,694 NA $26,653 88.9% NA
2026(p) -$1,325 -NA $25,053 NA $27,615 90.7% NA
2027(p) -$1,311 -NA $26,398 NA $28,653 92.1% NA
2028(p) -$1,543 -NA $27,970 NA $29,737 94.1% NA
2029(p) -$1,472 -NA $29,479 NA $30,850 95.6% NA
(a) – Actual – (CBO and Treasury Direct – Debt to the Penny)
(p) – Projected pre COVID-19- (CBO – March 2020 – Tables 1 and 2)
NA – Not Available


Annual Deficits (Budget Deficit on a Modified Cash basis versus Net Operating Cost on an Accrual basis): The budget deficit, on a modified cash basis, is measured as the excess of cash outlays, or payments made by the government, over receipts, or cash received by the government. Net operating cost, on an accrual basis, is the excess of costs and commitments (what the government has incurred, but has not necessarily paid) over revenues (what the government has collected and expects to collect, but has not necessarily received). Net operating cost typically exceeds the budget deficit due largely to the inclusion of cost accruals associated with increases in estimated liabilities for the government’s post-employment benefit programs for its military, civilian employees and veterans as well as environmental liabilities. (page 13 pdf page 32)

 U.S. Debt, Liabilities and Obligations – of $103.7 trillion at September 30, 2019 is the aggregate of three categories – 1) Total Public Debt Outstanding, 2) Net balance sheet liabilities, and 3) present value of unfunded, future social obligations.

Total Public Debt Outstanding  ($22.7 trillion at September 30, 2019) is the amount of U.S. Treasury debt securities outstanding. Total Public Debt Outstanding (gross national debt) is comprised of two broad categories (Treasury Direct, Debt to the Penny):

  • Debt held by the Public ($16.8 trillion) – these are Treasury securities held by investors outside the federal government, including those held by individuals, corporations, the Federal Reserve System, foreigners, and state and local governments.
  • Intragovernmental Debt ($5.9 trillion) are non-marketable Treasury securities held in accounts of programs administered by the federal government, such as the Social Security Trust Fund. Debt held by government accounts represents the cumulative surpluses, including interest earnings, of various government programs that have been invested in Treasury securities.

When the Debt Ceiling of $22.0 trillion was reached the U.S. Government exercised its authority to take “Extraordinary Measures” to allow it to continue to pay bills without exceeding the statutory debt limit. In order to avoid defaulting on U.S. debts the Congress and President in July 2019 suspended the debt ceiling until July 31, 2021 – after the Presidential election, the election of all of the members of the House and one-third of the Senate. The Total Public Debt Outstanding increased by $300 billion in August 2019 when the debt ceiling was lifted.

Often, government officials, some non-government organizations and some in the media, only state the smaller Debt Held by the Public amount when discussing the ratio of Debt to GDP under the theory Intragovernmental Debt (Funds from Dedicated Collections) is debt owed by one Federal entity to another Federal entity.  Under this theory, the U.S. Government eliminates Intergovernmental Debt in its consolidated financial statements.

That being noted, Intergovernmental Debt is a real liability. Note 20 of the Audited Financial Statements – Funds from Dedicated Collections states in part …. “Most of the assets within funds from dedicated collections are invested in intragovernmental debt holdings. …These securities require redemption if a fund’s disbursements exceeds its receipts. Redeeming these securities will increase the government’s financing needs and require more borrowing from the public (or less repayment of debt), or will result in higher taxes than otherwise would have been needed, or less spending on other programs than otherwise would have occurred, or some combination thereof. (page 128 – pdf page 147) Thus a real liability.

According to Just Facts, at the close of FYE 2019, the size of the Total Public Debt Outstanding relative to the U.S. economy was more than 3.6 times higher than its average over U.S. history. And the U.S. Government had an approx. combined total in debts, liabilities, and unfunded obligations at the close of its 2019 fiscal year equating to:

  • $315,315 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $806,181 for every household in the U.S.
  • 4.8 times the size of the U.S. economy.
  • 29 times annual federal revenues.
  • 91% of the combined net worth of all U.S. households and nonprofit organizations, including all assets in savings, real estate, corporate stocks, private businesses, and consumer durable goods such as automobiles and furniture.

Balance Sheet Liabilities, net at 9/19 (10.1 trillion at September 30, 2019) – The U.S. Government’s Balance Sheet reported Liabilities of $26.9 trillion, of which $16.9 trillion was Federal debt securities held by the public and accrued interest. The $15.8 trillion was accounted for in Total Public Debt Outstanding (above) leaving additional Liabilities of $10 trillion. (page 59, – pdf page 78)

Liabilities of $10 trillion less reported Assets of $4.0 trillion leaves at least $6.0 trillion in Liabilities to be funded by the issuance of additional debt. Of the $10 trillion in Liabilities, $8.5 trillion was Federal employee and veteran benefits payable. Of the $3.8 trillion in Assets, $1.4 trillion was primarily student loans.

 P.V. of Future, Unfunded Obligations  ($77.5 trillion at September 30, 2019) – This is the projection of the present value of future expenditures in excess of future revenues for the Closed Group (participants who have attained eligibility age and participants who have not attained eligibility age) for Social Insurance Plans – Social Security and Medicare (should there be no changes to programs). (page 63 – pdf page 82)


Debt Ceiling – Total Public Debt Outstanding, with some adjustments, is subject to a statutory debt ceiling (“debt limit”) ( The Balance )

  • Legislation suspended the debt limit from February 9, 2018 through March 1, 2019. Effective March 2, 2019, the statutory debt limit was $22.0 trillion, and on March 4, 2019, the Secretary of the Treasury notified the Congress that the statutory debt limit would be reached on or after that day. When delays in raising the debt limit occur, Treasury implements an accounting tool called “extraordinary measures” on a temporary basis, to enable the government to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by continuing to pay its bills. Treasury began taking these extraordinary measures on March 4, 2019. (page 4, pdf page 23)
  • If at any time the debt ceiling is reached and extraordinary measures are exhausted the government would be unable to pay its obligations fully, and it would delay making payments for its activities, default on its debt obligations, or both.(CBO)
  • In July 2019, the Secretary of the Treasury warned Congress that extraordinary measures were nearly exhausted and requested Congress raise the debt limit before its August recess. On July 31, 2019 the Senate passed a resolution to suspend the debt ceiling to July 31, 2021. The president is expected to sign it. Congress will now need to pass individual spending bills to avert another whole or partial government shutdown on October 1, 2019.
  • In fact, even accidental payment problems and the mere hint of a possible future default has cost U.S. taxpayers dearly in the past. As the New York Times noted, “bookkeeping problems” in 1979 temporarily delayed interest payments, and the resulting increase in interest rates were estimated to have cost taxpayers $12 billion. Similarly, a debt-limit standoff between Democrats and Republicans in 2011 were estimated to have cost $19 billion. ( Politifact )
  • The debt ceiling has been raised approximately 90 times since 1940. Continuing to raise the debt ceiling is how America wound up with a $22 trillion debt. The debt ceiling has become a joke. It has become more like a speed limit sign that is never enforced.  ( The Balance )