You might not realize this but you, as American taxpayers, are deeply in debt, maybe even more deeply than your indebtedness on your mortgage.
That’s one way, at least, to look at the size of the government debt that some economists say could hinder the economy for years. Rob Portman, the Republican U.S. senator from Ohio, shares that view, and on the floor on the Senate on March 21 said, "I’m worried about where we’re headed. Our debt now is about $140,000 per household."
Portman was speaking in support of a Republican budget proposal, and his comments had a political flavor. We’re not here to weigh the merits of Republican or Democratic budget proposals, especially since the Senate and House budgets as passed are little more than political wish lists. But we wondered if Portman was right about the size of the debt when measured in household terms.
This required some simple math. The current gross debt -- the total of long-term obligations by the federal government -- was $16.750 trillion the day Portman spoke, according to the Treasury Department’s debt-to-the-penny website.
The United States had 121,084,000 households in 2012, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, with whom we checked by phone and Internet. Divide the total debt by the number of households and you get $138,334, which is less than 1.2 percent off from Portman’s figure of $140,000.
You can examine this other ways, using other Census Bureau data; it can differ depending on which census surveys and methodologies you examine. You can even factor in different debt figures, using the debt on the day Portman spoke or the debt on the last day of 2012. Yet none of that makes much of a difference.
To bring this up to date in 2013, you can even use an estimate for the number of households there will be this year, and weigh it against the amount of debt subject to the limit set by Congress, since that limit is expected to be hit within months. That’s what Portman’s office did. Doing so, the household average exceeds $140,000 figure by $786.
In other words, the senator was on or near the mark in all these cases. If this represented the non-mortgage debt on every household, your credit limit, too, might be under duress. And Portman would be correct.
This is a hypothetical way of expressing the debt, of course, because neither party proposes paying it off equally among households. As we and our PolitiFact partners have noted before, tax rates and payments vary depending on incomes, deductions and other factors. There is no universal sum -- $140,000 or some other figure -- that each of our households actually owes.
Furthermore, a portion of this overall debt -- $4.85 trillion, to be precise -- represents obligations that one federal agency or account owes to another, and much of that money is available through agency transfers, ordinary operations and everyday tax transactions, at least for now. Growing federal obligations to retirees could create a demand for more borrowing in the future, but the situation is not dire this very moment and Congress could act before it gets that way.
This is why a number of economists, and the Congressional Budget Office, tend to focus on the other portion of debt -- the roughly $11.9.trillion borrowed by the government and held by creditors such as investors and foreign governments. If you used only that portion of the debt, the household average would fall considerably.
Where does that leave Portman’s claim?
He spoke of "our debt." While not a precise term, it’s another way of stating overall or gross debt. A number of economists have told PolitiFact that they worry more about the portion of debt held by the public, and less about the borrowing between intragovernmental accounts. But they have also said that when describing the national debt, it can be reasonable to express it in terms of the gross debt.
Portman was using an average to illustrate a point, not to say that each of us needs to take out a second mortgage.
We rate his claim Mostly True.