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Where did the "Debt Monkey" data come from?

August 14, 2012

By Richard Barrington | MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Q: Your "Debt Monkey" piece is funny -- and frightening. Could you provide more details on the data this is based on? Thanks.

A: The Debt Monkey infographic has generated some interest and discussion, which is gratifying because the idea behind it is to draw attention to a serious problem. MoneyRates.com has used a range of different materials to convey the message that debt in the U.S. is getting out of hand, from detailed articles to more visual methods such as this infographic. Different approaches suit different people, but the idea is to try a few different things in order to communicate the message.

The essence of that message is that for both the U.S. government and individuals in this country, debt has grown at an alarming rate. To ensure complete credibility for the data, MoneyRates.com exclusively used U.S. government data, from a variety of different agencies. Here is an explanation of some of the key facts and where they came from:

  • The infographic starts with a three-way comparison of government debt, personal debt and U.S. population growth. Naturally, if debt were growing purely as a function of population growth, the figures wouldn't be so alarming. However, as the graphic shows, both government and personal debt have grown much faster than the U.S. population. This means the average citizen, as both an individual and as a taxpayer, is taking on a much bigger debt burden. The figures on individual debt came from the Federal Reserve; the figures on government debt came from the U.S. Treasury; the figures on population growth came from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • While MoneyRates.com wanted to draw attention to the debt problem, it did not want to sensationalize the figures. So the comparisons of how average debt burdens have changed over time were adjusted to neutralize the impact of inflation. The inflation rates used came from the monthly Consumer Price Index reports issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Individuals shoulder the bulk of the tax burden in this country, which means they will be the ones primarily responsible for paying off the government's debt. In addition, the average American also has a personal debt burden to address. This is why the two figures were added together in the piece: to show the total amount of debt weighing on the average American.

It would be hard to imagine that any serious person would fail to recognize that ever-growing debt levels are a national problem, but one concern is that America has lived with debt for so long that people have become numb to the problem. If the Debt Monkey piece helps draw renewed attention to that problem, it will have served its purpose.

Got a financial question about saving, investing, or banking? MoneyRates.com invites you to submit your questions to its "Ask the Expert" feature. Just go to the MoneyRates.com home page and look for the "Ask the Expert" box on the lower left.

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