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Census Information on the Web: Governments

describes the major online services and collections of the Census Bureau and related institutions

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Statistics on governmental activity

NOTE: earlier data is available in printed form in the Library. See this guide.

graphThe Governments Division of the Census Bureau collects data via the Census of Governments, taken every 5 years, as well as through annual and quarterly surveys. Here are direct links to the data:

Annual Surveys:

Quarterly Surveys:

Federal Spending:

Importance of government statistics

It should come as no surprise that government activity—federal, state, and local—is an important component of the economy. In case you need graphic convincing, see the chart below provided by the Census Bureau.

The data collected by the Governments Division of the Census Bureau records the economic activity—revenues, expenditures, debt, assets, and employment—generated by the public sector.

See the links and descriptions of data from this important source in the box below. Consult navigation links on the left ("What's a government?") for information on how "governments" are defined.

chart of government share of GDP


Value-added data

starData collected and provided by the Governments Division of the Census Bureau is important for researchers and policy-makers for several reasons:

  • Public sector services are provided through a variety of different models among the different states, making comparisons difficult
  • The Bureau's data facilitates comparability between entities such as states and cities by reconciling different types of data from different types of governmental entities
  • Consistency of the data display over time makes time-series comparisons possible
  • It provides a consistent, normalized view of how various different government entities provide public services

Knowing how the organization of government structures vary from state to state can be very important in finding the data you need. For example, Cook County, Illinois (where Chicago is located) includes 539 governmental units; New York City contains only 3 (the city itself and 2 special districts).

The Census Bureau makes the following very handy reference book available. It details the governmental structures, down to the local level, for each state:

What's a government?

examples of governmentsStatistics collected by the Governments Division of the Census Bureau might be a little harder to get a handle on than some of the Bureau's other types of data. Because:

  • the public sector is an extremely varied universe of organizations, from the U.S. Congress to your local school district
  • governmental entities vary in their organization, structure, and activities from state to state, and sometimes from locality to locality.

There might even be confusion about what constitutes a governmental entity. Here are the rules that the Census Bureau uses to define a governmental body:

  • it has to exist as an organized entity, with a legal organization and corporate powers
  • it has to have a governmental character, with public offices (elected or appointed) and accountability
  • it has to have substantial autonomy: fiscal independence and administrative independence

On the right is a good list of examples from the Bureau that might make this definition clearer. But further complicating the situation is the sheer number of governmental entities in the country. In addition to the federal government and 50 state governments, there are almost 90,000 local governments that fit the Bureau's definition and are included in their statistics.

signpostAs you might expect when dealing with such a variety of organization, there is a substantial lack of standardization among reporting categories, plus a wide variety in the types and quality of ways in which this data is reported.

That's where the work of the Census Bureau is really helpful: bringing an order to this abundance of data.

How much government operates in your area?

The more darkly-colored counties have more layers of government than the lighter ones. As you might expect, urban areas often have more government. But there are some surprises: look at sparsely populated Wyoming and North Dakota.

how many govts?