Deficits and Surpluses

A government incurs a budget deficit when it spends more than it receives. For example, if a government spends $4,500 billion and it receives $3,500 billion from tax revenue and other sources, it incurs a deficit of $1.000 billion.

A government runs a budget surplus when it receives more than it spends. For example, if a government spends $3,700 billion and receives $3,800 billion in revenue, it runs a surplus of $100 billion.

For up-to-date statistics on recent United States deficits and surpluses, please click HERE (scroll down to “Budget”), and then click on the link for the budget figures.

A budget deficit is often confused with a nation’s national debt. A deficit (or surplus) is a yearly figure, whereas a debt represents the accumulation of all past deficits (and surpluses). Debt trends are covered in Sections 2 and 3 of this unit.

Video Explanation
For a video explanation of deficit and debt calculations, please visit:

The Clinton Surpluses

Since the 1930s, United States federal budget deficits have occurred much more frequently than budget surpluses. After World War II, only in 1969 and during the latter years (1998 through 2000) of the Clinton administration did the United States experience budget surpluses. Deficits turn into surpluses when either government spending decreases or government revenue increases, or both happen. During the Clinton administration, federal government spending increased, but at a modest pace. Tax revenue increased more than spending increased, primarily due to strong economic growth, and subsequently, the United States government ran a budget surplus. Economic growth results in higher incomes and more jobs. This increases the tax base (more people earning more income). Strong economic growth in the past several decades (with the exception of the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008/2009) in industrialized countries has been due in great part due to the following:

1. Moderate Increases in Prices of Good and Services
From the early 1980s through the first quarter of 2008, most industrialized countries experienced moderate price increases for goods and services. Low goods and services inflation allows long-term interest rates to remain low. Low interest rates stimulate business investments as well as consumer purchases of durable goods.

Central banks around the world did increase their nations’ money supply more than they should have, but this was mostly reflected in increasing asset prices (stocks, housing). These wealth gains stimulated the economy. However, the significant asset price increases also led to the bubble that burst in 2008 and eventually caused record deficits.

2. Advancing technology and Economic Growth
An economic system that encourages and rewards innovation and technology advances of small and large businesses, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, universities, and other research oriented organizations contributes to economic growth.

The Recent Record Deficits
In the United States, increased government spending, primarily due to increased spending on several wars, homeland security, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, bailout funds and stimulus packages have contributed to significant deficits. In 2019, the United States  incurred a deficit of more than $1,000 billion.

Budget Deficits and Surpluses as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product

Below is a table with data on United States budget deficits and surpluses in billions of dollars from 1980 through 2019. Deficits are expected to be a serious problem in the future as net interest payments on the debt will rise with growing deficits. Spending on defense and homeland security will remain high. An additional problem is that as more and more baby-boomers (the first ones reached full retirement age in 2011) elect to draw from Social Security and sign up for Medicare (or similar programs in other countries), they will further burden nations’ national debts. The Obama administration expanded health care coverage for many uninsured. This also added significant expenses to our government’s budget. Noticeable changes in this area are not likely to take place for several years.

Year Deficits (numbers with a minus sign) and Surpluses (numbers with a plus sign) in Billions of Dollars
1980 -74
1981 -79
1982 -128
1983 -208
1984 -185
1985 -212
1986 -221
1987 -150
1988 -155
1989 -153
1990 -221
1991 -269
1992 -290
1993 -255
1994 -203
1995 -163
1996 -107
1997 -22
1998 +69
1999 +126
2000 +236
2001 +128
2002 -158
2003 -378
2004 -413
2005 -318
2006 -248
2007 -161
2008 -459
2009 -1,413
2010 -1,295
2011 -1,300
2012 -1,087
2013 -973
2014 -485
2015 -438
2016 -585
2017 -665
2018 -833
2019 -1,091

Source: Office of Management and Budget. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals – table 1.1).