Census of Governments (Organization and Structure)



Data Overview. The territorial-administrative structure of the United States is formed by three distinct levels of government: the United States (federal or national) government; the states (each governed by their own state government); and local governments. Follow the link to learn more about the territorial-administrative structure of the United States and geographic classifications used by the Census Bureau.

For 2017, the Census of Governments indicates that below the federal government and the 50 states (and the District of Columbia), there are 90,075 local governments in the United States, of which 3,031 county governments, 19,495 cities or municipalities (incorporated local governments); 16,253 townships governments and 51,296 special purpose governments.

Federal and state government institutions. The Constitution of the United States delineates the national frame of government, including the powers and structure of the United States (federal) government; the powers and guiding principles for the structure of state governments; and the framework for the establishment of new states.

Since the establishment of the United States in 1776, the number of states has expanded from the original 13 states to 50 states. Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959 as the 49th and 50th states of the Union, respectively.

In addition to the states, the U.S. Constitution provides for a federal capital district under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. As a result, the nation's capital–Washington, D.C. or the District of Columbia–is neither a state nor a part of any U.S. state. For statistical purposes, it is often reported alongside the 50 states as a “state equivalent".

Local government institutions. Local governments are creations of their respective states. As such, each state–through the state constitution and state legislation–defines its own local government structure, along with the powers and responsibilities of different types of local governments. Some states allow local governments to adopt their own charters.

Counties are generally the primary territorial-administrative subdivision of their respective state, and therefore, the second-level administrative subdivision of the United States. Although governed by their respective state constitutions, counties in virtually all states have their own elected governments and significant functional responsibilities. Out of the 3,142 counties and county equivalent jurisdictions in the United States, 3,031 currently have their own county governments (Census of Government 2017).

While county governments are the primary territorial-administrative subdivision of their respective states, county government do not have hierarchical political or administrative power over other local governments within their county jurisdiction. As such, all types of local governments are generally considered to form a single government level.

Most counties are sub-divided for administrative or governance purposes into municipalities, townships and unincorporated areas. The powers and functions of these entities may vary from state to state. Other counties have no further divisions, or the county government may serve as a consolidated city-county jurisdiction (for instance, Miami-Dade County). Some municipalities are in multiple counties. Of the 35,748 subcounty general-purpose local governments in the United States, 19,495 are incorporated cities or municipalities (Census of Government 2017).

Special-purpose local governments include 12,754 independent school district governments as well as 38,542 special district governments, such as fire districts or water and sewer districts (Census of Government 2017). Again, the structure, powers and functions of special-purpose local governments vary from state to state.