DATA SOURCES

OMB Historical Tables

Census of Governments (Finance)

 

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The importance of public expenditures  can most easily be expressed in dollar terms: in 2017, total (direct) government expenditures in the United States amounted to USD 5.6 trillion, or about USD 17,300 per American. Of this amount, slightly more than half (USD 3.1 trillion, or USD 9,400 per person) was spent by state and local governments.

Analysis of public expenditures at the federal, state and local levels requires a basic understanding of the budget formulation and implementation processes at each level. For instance, federal expenditures—or formally: federal outlays—occur when financial obligations are paid out by the U.S. Treasury based on the budget authority granted by Congress to the Executive Branch as part of the appropriations process.

Budget formulation and financial management processes are not uniform across the federal, state and local government levels in the United States, with state and local governments determining their own budget processes (and in some cases, even determining their own Fiscal Year). The most reliable source of detailed and systematic state and local government finance data is the Census of Governments, which is conducted every five years and aims to collect financial reports from all state and local governments (including county governments; municipal governments; township governments; special district governments; and school district governments). Nonetheless, the absence of a uniform budget classification and reporting system across federal, state and local governments complicates the systematic analysis of intergovernmental expenditures.

It is important to make a distinction between direct expenditures versus intergovernmental expenditures at each level when analyzing public expenditures in an intergovernmental context. Direct expenditures include payments to employees, suppliers, contractors, beneficiaries, and other final recipients of government payments (i.e., all expenditure other than Intergovernmental expenditure). In turn, intergovernmental expenditures include amounts paid to other (i.e., state and local) governments, for instance, as grants-in-aid, revenue sharing, or other types of intergovernmental fiscal transfers. Because total expenditures at each level include both direct and intergovernmental expenditures, simply adding up the total level of spending (for instance, for a specific function) across federal, state and local governments would result in double-counting of intergovernmental expenditures. Instead, depending on the type of analysis being conducted, it may be necessary to consider direct expenditures at each level rather than total expenditures.

More information:
Budget concepts and budget process (U.S. Office of Management and Budget)
State budget processes and information: National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO)
Local government budget information: International City/County Management Association (ICMA)