Urban Skyline

Fiscal Concerns

Acting on the assumption that spending equals powers, another major use for research into the fiscal dimensions of American Federalism is to measure shifts in power. The logic is that the more you spend, and the more areas you spend in, the more power you have. Thus, if you can say “this data shows that the Federal government has increased spending in this area, while the states have decreased spending in that area to a comparable degree” then you can also assume that the power associated with that spending has shifted to the federal government as well, to the detriment of the state. While this theory has been challenged, and there are certainly shortcomings with the theory, it remains a mainstay of federalism research.

Stocks on a Screen

Article 1 is the single largest section of the U.S. Constitution, laying out the powers of the Legislative branch. The Framers intended for Congress to be quite busy. Thus, the power for raising revenue was given to them in order to finance that business, because every action government takes, no matter how small, costs something. Although Congress, state legislators and city councils do the spending, as a general rule it is John and Jane Q Public who actually foot the bill. Taxes come out of your pocket on the front end, and debt spending comes out of your pockets on the back end.

This relationship virtually guarantees that John and Jane have some very strong opinions about what government spends their money on, and how good a job they do with that expenditure. This set of opinions comprises a central aspect of public opinion research: if we can quantify peoples’ opinions about government spending, and tease apart how they feel about specific levels of government spending, we can begin to build not only a clear picture of how federalism-minded they are, but also what areas of government spending matter most to people and at what level.

This dashboard is comprised of several analyses on this concept of spending across levels of government. One of the most frequently asked question throughout much of the research is ‘which tax is fairest.’ This question has been asked more ways and over more time than virtually any other question in fiscal politics. Other areas of interest include perceptions of the extent of government waste; the value gained from expenditures at each level of government; and the overall effectiveness of the expenditures.

In his 1999 article “An Essay on Fiscal Federalism, Oates identifies two important, but very different uses for the term “fiscal federalism”: The economic and the political.

“.. [I]n political science [fiscal federalism] refers to a political system with a constitution that guarantees some range of autonomy and power to both central and decentralized levels of government. For an economist, nearly all public sectors are more or less federal in the sense of having different levels of government that provide public service and have some scope for de facto decision-making authority.

This dashboard deals explicitly with the more normative definition used in political science to determine which levels of government should exercise a power and how, and whether or not they are doing a good job of it.


One of the most important functions of the legislative branch is the power of the purse - levying taxes, raising money, and spending it to accomplish the purposes of the nation. Although the Constitution GRANTS them this power, HOW they use that power is the subject of intense public scrutiny. “Taxation without representation” was one of the rallying cries of the Revolution precisely because it is unfair for a legislature to tax the people and spend their money without the people having a say in the decision.

The information in this dashboard examines the opinions of the American public regarding specific types of taxes and how fair they are. This information gives us a glimpse of how people view specific types of taxes, but also the level of faith and trust they have in the various levels of government that tax them.

According to a report by the OMB (Table 2.1-Receipts by Source: 1934-2025), about 95% of U.S. government spending comes from taxes. That M1A1 main battle tank? Taxes. PBS funding? Taxes. Amtrak bailouts related to coronavirus shortfalls that are somehow different from their usual shortfalls? Your taxes. You could understand if the many examples of wasteful spending, from the mundane to the absurd, might prompt Americans toward a pessimistic view of the tax structure. However, taxes also fund the necessary and legitimate services the government provides, such as national defense, maintaining the postal service, the Census, and more. The data gives a more nuanced answer that reflects the larger picture.


The graphs below help tell this story. 

  • Graph 1 tells us that even in the best of times, when our view of government is at its best (as was the case immediately after 9/11), a combined 97% of Americans assume the government wastes some (49%) or a lot (48%) of our money. In fact, the average across sixty years is 96%.

  • Graph 2 tells us that on average, 49% of Americans think the amount of taxes we pay to the government is just fine, but 45% think the tax burden is too high; less than 5% think we should pay more.

  • Graph 3 shows a similar breakdown of opinion on the services the government provides with that money, with an average of 45% satisfied with the level of taxes and services,  and an average of 35% who think it is too much. On average, only about 6% of Americans would like to see taxes and services increased.

Taken together, these graphs paint an interesting picture. Americans believe that their taxes are largely spent on the right sort of things (and we don’t need to expand into other areas), but are not spent efficiently, and we’re largely okay with that. 90% of Americans respond that they either pay what they should or pay more than they should, combined with 65% of Americans on average believing that the government wastes a lot of our tax money, you can paint a picture of a country that is comfortable with some waste, but largely doesn’t trust the government to expand its reach in beneficial ways.

Limiters to views on taxes DO NOT PUBLISH ME:

"at or exceeding"

Waste - LOTS or some

Tax share - Too much or just enough. negligible group says pay more

Govt Services and Taxes - Too much or just enough. Negligible but growing group says do more.

Meaning - We are okay with some waste in government because we accept it as the necessary cost of accomplishing the largely legitimate work the government does. If we had to choose to increase or decrease spending, we would overwhelmingly choose to decrease.

None of this data takes into account the surge of rioting and other social movements of the last 5 years. Needs more recent research on the topic.

Most Americans recognize that whatever the government program is, no matter how essential it is, it's waste.

- George Allen

Most governments on earth divide responsibility for the various legitimate functions of government between different levels of government. In American Federalism, rather uniquely, the responsibilities of local and state governments is not to the Federal government, but is a sovereign accountability ultimately granted by the people, and answerable to them. This is, in part, why public perception of the more local entities are so valuable to those trying to understand the relationships between the people and the different levels of government.

In addition, the field of intergovernmental relations has long used the shift in relative expenditures between the levels of government to attempt to quantify the health of American Federalism. Although there have been some challenges to the validity of this as a stand-alone metric (Alexander, 1971) NEED TO FIND THE LINK, perceptions of this fiscal structure remain a valuable corollary in assessing how Federal we are as a people.

The graphs below, as those above, tell a story of paradox. On the whole, Americans think that every level of government, bar none, is wasteful with their tax dollars. And it is not just a little. At our most hopeful, when this data began to be collected, even local governments were though to waste 0.25$ out of every dollar, and the feds were thought to waste 0.40$. We also have very little faith that the remaining share of money is spent wisely, although more local governments fare much better than state and federal governments. The data shows that people see the Feds as giving the least value for every tax dollar at about twice the rate of state and local governments. And the view isn't getting any better either.

Supporters of a more robust state role in American Federalism can likely take heart at the views of the American public, since it will take very little to convince the America we see in these graphs that fiscal power would be more beneficial to them the closer the decisions are made to their neighborhood.

UGH, take a look at this please and pull it apart. BTW, the Wasted Tax Dollars graph is organized from most recent to least recent, which is different from all the other graphs.



In 1964, 64% of Americans reported feeling confident that their government was "responsive" to their needs. In 2016, only 50% shared that opinion. 


With regards to elections, the percentage of citizens who think that elections matter “Not Much" spiked from 11% in 2008 to 22% in 2012 and again increasing to 27% in 2016. On attentiveness, data from 1962-2004 shows less than 20% of Americans believed the government paid attention to voter preferences “A Good Deal.” The same data shows more than 56% feel the government pays "Some" and "A Good Deal" to voter preferences. This data is supported by PEW research to show, on average after 2004, only 24.5% of American voters believe elected officials care about the average voting American's opinion. This represents a significant decrease from its highest in 2000 and 1996, where the average was 38.5%.


A study conducted by John Samples and Emily Elkins found Americans exhibit a profound distrust in the ability of the federal government to act on their behalf. In contrast, many believe state and local governments are likely to perform better and give the citizens a greater voice and impact.