U.S. Inflation Rate by Year: 1929–2023

The U.S. inflation rate by year shows how much the prices of products and services rise year over year. The inflation rate by year provides more insight into how prices for goods and services changed than by just looking at average annual inflation. 

The inflation rate typically reacts to phases of the business cycle, which is the natural cycle of expansion and contraction that the economy goes through over time.

The Federal Reserve has a target annual inflation rate of 2%, and it uses monetary policy to keep inflation in check and stabilize the economy when inflation rises above that benchmark. 

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. inflation rate shows the change in prices year over year.
  • The inflation rate responds to different phases of the business cycle as the economy expands and contracts.
  • The Federal Reserve uses monetary policy to control inflation and keep it at or near an annual target of 2%. 
  • In 2022, inflation reached some of the highest levels seen since 1981, hitting 9.1% in the middle of 2022 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What Is the Inflation Rate? 

The inflation rate is the percentage change in the price of products and services from one year to the next (year over year). Two of the most common ways to measure inflation are the Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The CPI measures the change in prices paid by U.S. consumers over time, and it is the most popular way to gauge inflation. 

The year-over-year inflation rate is calculated by subtracting the value of the CPI at the beginning of the year from the value at the end of the year. The result is then divided by the CPI value at the beginning of the year, then multiplied by 100 to get the inflation-rate percentage. 

The latest year-on-year inflation rate, before seasonal adjustment for February 2023, is 6.0%. The most recent monthly report on CPI from the BLS was released May 10.

Why the Inflation Rate Matters

The inflation rate indicates the overall health of a country’s economy. It is used by central banks, economists, and governments to determine what action needs to be taken, if any, to stabilize the economy and keep it healthy. 

Policymakers at the Fed generally believe that an inflation rate of 2% (or slightly below) is acceptable for a stable economy that is healthy for both consumers and businesses. If the inflation rate drops too low and prices fall over a sustained period of time, it could cause deflation.

Deflation is the opposite of inflation. It occurs when consumers stop spending more money than necessary and put off buying big-ticket items in hopes that prices will fall even further.

The decrease in consumer spending, slowing business activity, and high unemployment that comes with deflation can have severe long-term effects on a country’s economy. 

Rapidly rising prices and high levels of inflation aren’t good for the economy, either, as they often outpace wages and make products and services more expensive for consumers. This is why most central banks and governments closely monitor the annual inflation rate to ensure it is at a balanced and modest level, around 2% to 3%. 

U.S. Inflation Rate from 1929 to 2023

While the United States has experienced a relatively low and stable inflation rate since the 1980s, inflation hit record highs in 2021 and 2022 in the wake of the pandemic. The annual inflation rate was 7.0% in December 2021 and 6.5% at the end of 2022.

Looking at the inflation rate from the December end-of-year CPI ties it to a specific point in time, making it easier to draw comparisons between inflation rates year over year (YOY). The table below shows the annual inflation rate in the U.S. from 1929 to 2023 and compares it with the federal funds rate, the phase of the business cycle, and important events that might have influenced inflation.

Year Inflation rate YOY Federal funds rate Business cycle (gross domestic product [GDP] growth) Events affecting inflation
1929 0.60% NA August peak Market crash
1930 -6.40% NA Contraction (-8.5%) Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act
1931 -9.30% NA Contraction (-6.4%) Dust Bowl
1932 -10.30% NA Contraction (-12.9%) Hoover tax hikes
1933 0.80% NA Contraction ended in March (-1.2%) FDR’s New Deal
1934 1.50% NA Expansion (10.8%) U.S. debt rose
1935 3.00% NA Expansion (8.9%) Social Security
1936 1.40% NA Expansion (12.9%) FDR tax hikes
1937 2.90% NA Expansion peaked in May (5.1%) Depression resumed
1938 -2.80% NA Contraction ended in June (-3.3%) Depression ended
1939 0.00% NA Expansion (8.0%) Dust Bowl ended
1940 0.70% NA Expansion (8.8%) Defense increased
1941 9.90% NA Expansion (17.7%) Pearl Harbor
1942 9.00% NA Expansion (18.9%) Defense spending
1943 3.00% NA Expansion (17.0%) Defense spending
1944 2.30% NA Expansion (8.0%) Bretton Woods
1945 2.20% NA February peak, October trough (-1.0%) Truman ended WWII
1946 18.10% NA Expansion (-11.6%) Budget cuts
1947 8.80% NA Expansion (-1.1%) Cold War spending
1948 3.00% NA November peak (4.1%)
1949 -2.10% NA October trough (-0.6%) Fair Deal; NATO
1950 5.90% NA Expansion (8.7%) Korean War
1951 6.00% NA Expansion (8.0%)
1952 0.80% NA Expansion (4.1%)
1953 0.70% NA July peak (4.7%) Eisenhower ended Korean War
1954 -0.70% 1.25% May trough (-0.6%) Dow returned to 1929 high
1955 0.40% 2.50% Expansion (7.1%)
1956 3.00% 3.00% Expansion (2.1%)
1957 2.90% 3.00% August peak (2.1%) Recession
1958 1.80% 2.50% April trough (-0.7%) Recession ended
1959 1.70% 4.00% Expansion (6.9%) Fed raised rates
1960 1.40% 2.00% April peak (2.6%) Recession
1961 0.70% 2.25% February trough (2.6%) JFK’s deficit spending ended recession
1962 1.30% 3.00% Expansion (6.1%)
1963 1.60% 3.50% Expansion (4.4%)
1964 1.00% 3.75% Expansion (5.8%) LBJ Medicare, Medicaid
1965 1.90% 4.25% Expansion (6.5%)
1966 3.50% 5.50% Expansion (6.6%) Vietnam War
1967 3.00% 4.50% Expansion (2.7%)
1968 4.70% 6.00% Expansion (4.9%)
1969 6.20% 9.00% December peak (3.1%) Nixon took office; moon landing
1970 5.60% 5.00% November trough (0.2%) Recession
1971 3.30% 5.00% Expansion (3.3%) Wage-price controls
1972 3.40% 5.75% Expansion (5.3%) Stagflation
1973 8.70% 9.00% November peak (5.6%) End of gold standard
1974 12.30% 8.00% Contraction (-0.5%) Watergate
1975 6.90% 4.75% March trough (-0.2%) Stopgap monetary policy confused businesses and kept prices high
1976 4.90% 4.75% Expansion (5.4%)
1977 6.70% 6.50% Expansion (4.6%)
1978 9.00% 10.00% Expansion (5.5%)
1979 13.30% 12.00% Expansion (3.2%)
1980 12.50% 18.00% January peak (-0.3%) Recession
1981 8.90% 12.00% July trough (2.5%) Reagan tax cut
1982 3.80% 8.50% November (-1.8%) Recession ended
1983 3.80% 9.25% Expansion (4.6%) Military spending
1984 3.90% 8.25% Expansion (7.2%)
1985 3.80% 7.75% Expansion (4.2%)
1986 1.10% 6.00% Expansion (3.5%) Tax cut
1987 4.40% 6.75% Expansion (3.5%) Black Monday crash
1988 4.40% 9.75% Expansion (4.2%) Fed raised rates
1989 4.60% 8.25% Expansion (3.7%) S&L crisis
1990 6.10% 7.00% July peak (1.9%) Recession
1991 3.10% 4.00% March trough (-0.1%) Fed lowered rates
1992 2.90% 3.00% Expansion (3.5%) NAFTA drafted
1993 2.70% 3.00% Expansion (2.8%) Balanced Budget Act
1994 2.70% 5.50% Expansion (4.0%)
1995 2.50% 5.50% Expansion (2.7%)
1996 3.30% 5.25% Expansion (3.8%) Welfare reform
1997 1.70% 5.50% Expansion (4.4%) Fed raised rates
1998 1.60% 4.75% Expansion (4.5%) Long-term capital management crisis
1999 2.70% 5.50% Expansion (4.8%) Glass-Steagall Act repealed
2000 3.40% 6.50% Expansion (4.1%) Tech bubble burst
2001 1.60% 1.75% March peak, November trough (1.0%) Bush tax cut; 9/11 attacks
2002 2.40% 1.25% Expansion (1.7%) War on Terror
2003 1.90% 1.00% Expansion (2.9%) Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act
2004 3.30% 2.25% Expansion (3.8%)
2005 3.40% 4.25% Expansion (3.5%) Hurricane Katrina; Bankruptcy Act
2006 2.50% 5.25% Expansion (2.9%)
2007 4.10% 4.25% December peak (1.9%) Bank crisis
2008 0.10% 0.25% Contraction (-0.1%) Financial crisis
2009 2.70% 0.25% June trough (-2.5%) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
2010 1.50% 0.25% Expansion (2.6%) Affordable Care Act; Dodd-Frank Act
2011 3.00% 0.25% Expansion (1.6%) Debt ceiling crisis
2012 1.70% 0.25% Expansion (2.2%)
2013 1.50% 0.25% Expansion (1.8%) Government shutdown, sequestration
2014 0.80% 0.25% Expansion (2.5%) Quantitative easing ends
2015 0.70% 0.50% Expansion (3.1%) Deflation in oil and gas prices
2016 2.10% 0.75% Expansion (1.7%)
2017 2.10% 1.50% Expansion (2.3%)
2018 1.90% 2.50% Expansion (3.0%)
2019 2.30% 1.75% Expansion (2.2%)
2020 1.40% 0.25% Contraction (-3.4%) COVID-19
2021 7.00% 0.25% Expansion (5.9%) COVID-19
2022 6.50% 4.25% Contraction (2.1%) Russia invades Ukraine
2023 (as of February) 6.00% 4.50% NA
Inflation rate provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal funds rate provided by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and is represented by the top of the range. Business cycle is provided by the National Bureau of Economic Research. GDP growth is provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The Importance of Business Cycles: Expansion and Contraction

The inflation rate often responds to different phases of the business cycle or the natural expansion and contraction that economies undergo over time. The business cycle has four phases: expansion, peak, contraction, and trough. 

Expansions and Peaks

During expansion, the economy experiences rapid growth. Interest rates tend to be low, and economic indicators related to growth such as employment, wages, output, demand, and supply of goods and services are generally trending upward. The inflation rate is usually at the acceptable level of around 2%. 

When the economy hits the maximum level of growth, it’s known as the peak, which marks the end of expansion and the beginning of contraction. Prices are typically at their highest in the peak stage of the business cycle, and inflation is also high. At this point, the Federal Reserve raises interest rates in an effort to cool inflation and slow down the economy, which leads to contraction. 

Contractions and Troughs 

In the contraction phase of the business cycle, prices fall, growth slows, and employment declines. If this period of contraction lasts long enough, it can lead to a recession, which could in turn lead to deflation.

As the economy continues to trend downward, it reaches the trough—the lowest point in the cycle, where prices bottom out before recovery and expansion begin again. Here, the inflation rate begins to rise and the cycle starts over. 

How the Federal Reserve Uses Monetary Policy to Control Inflation

The Federal Reserve uses monetary policy to control inflation as the economy goes through its cycle of expansion and contraction. The Fed focuses on the core inflation rate—which excludes food and energy prices, which are typically more volatile—to monitor inflation trends.

If the core inflation rate rises significantly above the Fed’s 2% target inflation rate, the Fed will tighten monetary policy to slow the economy by hiking the federal funds rate, or the rate at which banks lend to each other. Raising the fed funds rate influences interest rates and makes borrowing money more expensive for consumers and businesses.

Conversely, the Fed will decrease the discount rate—which is the interest rate for banks to borrow money from the Federal Reserve—to stimulate the economy and raise prices. A lower discount rate means that banks will lower the interest rate for customers as well, making it easier for consumers and businesses to borrow money. 

Other methods that the Federal Reserve may use to expand the economy include:

What Is the Highest Inflation Rate in Modern U.S. History?

Since the introduction of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in 1913, the highest inflation rate observed in the United States was 20.49% in 1917. 

How Is Inflation Measured?

The Consumer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most widely used measure of inflation. The Federal Reserve prefers the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) index because it provides a clearer picture of inflation trends that are less affected by short-term price changes (such as food and energy prices).

What Is It Called When Inflation Reverses?

This is known as a contraction. In this phase of the business cycle, prices fall and growth and employment decline. If this period lasts, it can lead to a recession, which in turn could bring on deflation. As the economy continues to move downward in a contraction, it reaches the trough—the lowest point in the cycle, where prices bottom out before recovery and expansion return. At that point, the inflation rate starts to rise, and the cycle resumes.

The Bottom Line

The inflation rate is an important metric to measure the overall health of the economy, which is why it is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve, government officials, and economists. The U.S. central bank uses it to inform monetary policy and what decisions must be made to keep inflation as close to the 2% annual inflation target as possible, including fostering a stable economy with steady supply and demand.

Article Sources
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