Fiscal policy of the United States

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Fiscal policy is considered any changes the government makes to the national budget in order to influence a nation's economy.[1] The approach to economic policy in the United States was rather laissez-faire until the Great Depression. The government tried to stay away from economic matters as much as possible and hoped that a balanced budget would be maintained.[2] Prior to the Great Depression, the economy did have economic downturns and some were quite severe. However, the economy tended to self-correct so the laissez faire approach to the economy tended to work.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt first instituted fiscal policies in the United States in The New Deal. The first experiments did not prove to be very effective, but that was in part because the Great Depression had already lowered the expectations of business so drastically.[3]


The Great Depression[edit]

Crowd gathering outside of a New York City stock exchange during the Great Depression

The Great Depression struck countries in the late 1920s and continued throughout the entire 1930's. It affected some countries more than others, and the effects in the US were detrimental. In 1933, 25 percent of all workers were unemployed in America.[4] Many families starved or lost their homes. Some tried traveling to the West to find work, also to no avail.

The Great Depression showed the American population that there was a growing need for the government to manage economic affairs. The size of the federal government began rapidly expanding in the 1930s, growing from 553,000 paid civilian employees in the late 1920s to 953,891 employees in 1939. The budget grew substantially as well. In 1939, federal receipts of the administrative budget were 5.50 percent of Gross National Product, GNP, while federal expenditures were 9.77 percent of GNP. These numbers were up significantly from 1930, when federal receipts averaged 3.80 percent of GNP while expenditures averaged 3.04 percent of GNP.

Another contributor to changing the role of government in the 1930s was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was important because of his implication of The New Deal, which was a program that would offer relief, recovery, and reform to the American nation.[5] In terms of relief, new organizations, such as the Works Progress Administration, saved many U.S. lives. The reform aspect was indeed the most influential in The New Deal, for it forever changed the role of government in the U.S. economy. In essence, it was the beginning of fiscal policy. It was the first time that the government took an active role in attempting to secure American individuals from unseen drastic changes in the market.[6]

Although the repression and reform aspects of The New Deal proved to be effective for President Roosevelt, recovery was an issue that did not. Unemployment rates remained very high throughout the 1930s.[4] It was still difficult for Americans to find jobs. This problem diminished when the government called for many industries to convert to military production in the early 1940s[7] in order to prepare for World War II.

World War II and effects[edit]

World War II forced the government to run huge deficits, or spend more than they were economically generating, in order to keep up with all of the production the US military needed. By running deficits, the economy recovered, and America rebounded from its drought of unemployment.[8] The military strategy of full employment had a huge benefit: the government’s massive deficits were used to pay for the war, and ended the Great Depression.[9] This phenomenon set the standard and showed just how necessary it was for the government play an active role in fiscal policy.[8]

The Employment Act of 1946 was enacted by the government to keep the economy from plunging back into a post-war depression. The act declared the continuing policy and responsibility of the federal government to use all reasonable means to promote maximum (not full) employment, production, and purchasing power.[10] In addition to focusing on keeping unemployment rates low, the act called for the creation of the Council of Economic Advisors.[11] This council had the task of assisting the president in appointing members to the Joint Economic Committee in the United States Congress and continuing to develop the role of fiscal policy in the United States.[11]

Modern fiscal policy[edit]

The United States government has tended to spend more money than it takes in, indicated by a national debt that was close to $1 billion at the beginning of the 20th century. The budget for most of the 20th century followed a pattern of deficits during wartime and economic crises, and surpluses during periods of peacetime economic expansion.

In 1971, at Bretton Woods, the US went off the gold standard allowing the dollar to float. Shortly after that, the price of oil was pegged to gold rather than the dollar by OPEC. The 70s were marked by oil shocks, recessions and inflation in the US. From fiscal years 1970 to 1997; although the country was nominally at peace during most of this time, the federal budget deficit accelerated, topping out (in absolute terms) at $290 billion for 1992.

U.S. deficits and surpluses 1966-2026 by percentage of GDP, from CBO Updated Budget Projections March 2016

In contrast, from FY 1997–2001, gross revenues exceeded expenditures and a surplus resulted. However, it has been argued that this 'balanced budget' only constituted a surplus in the public debt (or on-budget), in which the Treasury Department borrowed increased tax revenue from intragovernmental debt holdings (namely the Social Security Trust Fund), thus adding more interest on Treasury bonds. In effect, the four year 'surplus' was only in public debt holdings, while the National Debt Outstanding increased every fiscal year (the lowest deficit in FY 2000 was $17.9 Billion)[12][13][14][15][16][17][18] However, after a combination of the dot-com bubble burst, the September 11 attacks, a dramatic increase in government spending (primarily in defense for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq) and a $1.35 trillion tax cut, the budget returned to a deficit basis. The budget went from a $236 billion surplus in fiscal year 2000 to a $413 billion deficit in fiscal year 2004. In fiscal year 2005, the deficit began to shrink due to a sharp increase in tax revenue. By 2007, the deficit was reduced to $161 billion; less than half of what it was in 2004 and the budget appeared well on its way to balance once again.

In late 2007 to early 2008, the economy would enter a particularly bad recession as a result of high oil and food prices, and a substantial credit crisis leading to the bankruptcy and eventual federal take over of certain large and well established mortgage providers. In an attempt to fix these economic problems, the United States federal government passed a series of costly economic stimulus and bailout packages. As a result of this, in fiscal year 2008, the deficit would increase to $455 billion and is projected to continue to increase dramatically for years to come due in part to both the severity of the current recession and the high-spending fiscal policy the federal government has adopted to help combat the nation's economic woes.[4] As a result, the federal budget deficit increased to $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2009, or 9.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Over subsequent years both the economy and the deficit recovered to some extent, and the government enacted several laws with significant budget impact, including the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the Budget Control Act in 2011, and the American Taxpayer Relief Act in 2012.[19] The Congressional Budget Office projected a $534 billion deficit in fiscal year 2016, or 2.9 percent of GDP. If current policy remains unchanged, the CBO projects the deficit will increase to 4.9 percent of GDP by 2026, or a cumulative total of $9.3 trillion over the period.[20] As a percentage of the GDP, within the context of the national economy as a whole, the highest deficit was run during fiscal year 1946 at nearly 30% of GDP, but that rebounded to a surplus by 1947. By contrast, deficits during the 1980s reached 5–6% of GDP and the deficit for 2005 was 2.6% of GDP, close to the post-World War II average. In 2009, the deficit was 9.8% of GDP, the highest since World War II.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heakal, Reem. "What is Fiscal Policy". Retrieved Feb 2011.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. ^ "Laissez-Faire". Retrieved 1 March 2011. 
  3. ^ "Fiscal Policy". Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online ed.). 2011. Retrieved 23 Feb 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Schwenk, Albert E. "Compensation from before WW I through the Great Depression". United States Department of Labor. 
  5. ^ Bryant, Joyce. "The Great Depression and New Deal". Retrieved 8 March 2011. 
  6. ^ "FRD's New Deal". 
  7. ^ backend. "The American Economy during WWII". Retrieved 8 March 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Lipsky, John. "Fiscal policy challenges in post-crisis world". Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  9. ^ "America's Great Depression". ametecon dot com. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  10. ^ Fisher, Louis. "Employment Act of 1946". Major Acts of Congress. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  11. ^ a b "FULL EMPLOYMENT ACT OF 1946". The Gale Group. Retrieved 11 March 2011. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2014-07-01. 
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  18. ^
  19. ^ [1] Financial Report of the United States Government 2015, "Citizens Guide to the Fiscal Year 2015," published 2016-02-26
  20. ^ [2] Congressional Budget Office, "Updated Budget Projections: 2016 to 2026," published 2016-03-24
  21. ^ [3] Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2017, "Historical Tables: Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-) as Percentages of GDP: 1930–2021," retrieved 2016-06-11

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