The Washington Post

There’s about one ‘governmental unit’ for every 3,566 people in the U.S.

CORRECTION: This post previously inaccurately described the rate at which government units declined in some states.

Governmental bodies in the United States come in all shapes and sizes: big, small; powerful, weak; some serve millions, some just thousands. And one thing is clear: there are a whole lot of them. In fact, in 2012, there were some 89,055 federal, state, county, city, town, school district and so-called special-purpose districts, according to a preliminary Census count up for a revision this month.

That means there’s an average of one government body—”government units,” as the Census likes to call them—for every 3,566 people. It may sound like a lot, but it’s actually relatively few compared to how many there were decades ago.

There were 155,116 government units in 1942. The number dropped pretty quickly thereafter, reaching a low of over 78,000 in 1972, before slowly floating back up to current levels. The Census provides a handy map of the density of local governments, which you can see below. (Note the expanded legend underneath—the darkest green regions have anywhere from 51 to 538 governmental units.)

(Source: Census.)

A reduction in school districts played a significant role in the decline, dropping from more than 67,000 in 1952 to 12,884 in 2012. Special-purpose districts—things like fire districts, library districts and housing authorities—have accounted for a growing share of the total, rising from over 12,000 in 1952 to just over 37,000 last year.

In terms of absolute numbers, Illinois had the most governmental units at 6,969 last year. Pennsylvania followed with 4,906 and Texas was next with 4,857. North Dakota has the most per person, at one body for every 262 people. South Dakota had the next most, with one per 421 people. Nebraska followed with one per 719 citizens.

There’s little unifying the states that saw the largest increases and decreases in governmental units. Delaware has seen the biggest percentage growth, rising from 79 percent to 339 state and local governmental units in 2012. New Mexico saw a 74 percent increase to 855 units and Alaska saw a 72 percent increase to 178 units.

Iowa saw the biggest decline: dropping to just under 2,000 from 7,500. Nebraska’s number dropped to 2,582 from just over 8,500. And South Carolina’s governmental units dropped to 682 from just over 2,000.


Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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