Sold Out Futures By State: Debt and Capital Construction Investments, Census of Governments Data

When people think about America’s debt problem, they generally think about the national debt, which is to say the on-the-books debts of the federal government held by the general public. U.S. debts in general, however, have soared from a total of less than 170 percent of GDP from the 1950s to the early 1980s to nearly 350 percent of GDP in 2008, as I noted here.


Consumer debt soared. Business debt soared. And state and local government debt soared, from 12.4% of GDP in 1980 to 20.6% of GDP in 2009, before dropping back. While state and local governments are generally required to run balanced budgets, they also tend to have separate capital budgets, under which money is borrowed for long-term capital investments. While state and local government debt has been trending up, however, infrastructure expenditures have trended in the other direction. The result is a sold-out future.

Note:  This analysis has been updated with four more years of data.  Read the new analysis rather than this one.  It is located here.


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Parks, Culture, Libraries, Vices and Oddities: Census of Governments Data

For twenty years it was the same dance. The Mayor would play the bad guy and propose a budget that would threaten cuts in funding for the Department of Parks and the Department of Libraries, knowing full well the city would have enough money to restore the cuts. This would allow the parochial members of the City Council to “fight for the people” to get the money back for THEIR constituents. In exchange for the Mayor being able to make all the serious decisions, with both winners and losers, that the Council members sought to avoid.

Note this is an obsolete post, as a newer post based on the Census of Governments for 2017 — and 2007 and 1997 — is available.  Read that one instead.


Continuing with the older post based on data from the 2012 Census of Governments.

Then incoming Mayor DeBlasio promised to end the old game, to the delight of Parks and Libraries advocates. After which the City Council, desperate for organized interests to pander to, demanded the addition of 1,000 more police officers, even though New York City already has 2.8 times as many police officers per 100,000 residents as the U.S. average, and far more than that in retirement. So one year later, from what I read in the media, a sadder but wiser Mayor DeBlasio has brought back the same old game. Amidst all the politicking what does the City of New York, and for that matter the State of New York, spend on Parks, Recreation, Culture and Libraries compared with other places? The next post uses Census of Governments data to find out.

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Overview of State and Local Government Expenditures: Census of Governments Data

Services have been cut. In public schools, class sizes have been increased and after school activities curtailed in New York City and across the country. Mass transit is increasingly crowded and unreliable. There are far more potholes in the road than there once were. In many places, when someone has a mental health emergency, there is no one to call but the police. With all this happening, one might assume that state and local government expenditures are going down.

But it isn’t so everywhere. Data from the 1992, 2002 and 2012 Census of Governments shows that state and local expenditures in the latter year equaled a higher share of everyone’s personal income than a couple of decades earlier, if taxpayer pension contributions are included. In New York City, in fact, the combination of direct local government spending, an allocated share of direct state government spending, and taxpayer pension contributions totaled 30.5% of city residents personal income in FY 2012. Direct federal government spending would be on top of that. What has happened is not a decline in spending, but rather a shift in spending. This overview will discuss that shift, which will be examined in detail in subsequent posts on specific government functions.

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Background and Databases: 2012 Census of Governments State and Local Finance Data

Every five years the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a Census of Governments to record the organization, employment, and finances of every state and local government in the country. For the past few months the Bureau has been releasing finance data from the 2012 Census of Governments, and I’ve been tabulating it. Attached to the end of this post are spreadsheets that provide a comparison between New York City, all local governments in the U.S. combined, all local governments in different regions of New York State, all local governments in each county in both New York State and New Jersey, and selected counties across the country. And all local governments, by state, in each state in the U.S.

Note:  this post has been superseded by an analysis of the 2017 Census of Governments.


Continuing with the post as originally written…

There is column for each area and, moving across the same row, one can find, for example, what share of New York City residents’ personal income the city collects in local government taxes, compared with the U.S. average and local governments elsewhere. The same comparison could be made for property taxes or sales taxes alone. Or one can also find what share of the income of all NYC residents the city spends, in total or in specific categories such as parks and libraries. And I’ve provided additional spreadsheets with data for state government revenues and expenditures, by category as a percent of the personal income of each state’s residents. Similar data is provided for 1992 and 2002, for a comparison over time.

Over the next month or two I intend to write a series of posts, complete with charts, with my analysis of this data. What I would really like, however, is for people to first download these spreadsheets, look at the tables on their own, and make up their own minds about what the data says, before getting my take on it. There is far more information here and coming, for far more areas, than I could ever find time to write about. When you see this data, and you see how different places compare, you realize that much of what you hear in the media about state and local government is misleading. The public discussion is dominated by those with a financial stake in state and local policy, and it is slanted to their views – at best by providing only a partial picture, at worse by simply making stuff up. The staff of the Census Bureau has worked diligently to provide objective information for open minded, curious people, and I’ve spent 96 hours of my own time, so far, to put it in a form that makes fair comparisons from place to place and time to time possible. Please use it and think about it. Continue reading