The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government cut a valuable report on federal spending on states. Now two think tanks are trying to recreate it

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

What do you do when the government kills a valuable dataset? Build your own, of course.

That’s what some staffers working independently at two think tanks have been up to for the better part of the past year. The results of that labor debut today for one group. The National Priorities Project, a nonprofit focused on making the federal budget accessible to the public, is unveiling a website, State Smart, that offers visitors a look at dozens of ways in which federal dollars are funneled to states and vice versa. A similar effort by the Pew Charitable Trusts’s Fiscal Federalism Initiative is slated for release this December.

Both efforts seek to replicate as best they can the Census Bureau’s now-defunct Consolidated Federal Funds Report, a resource that provided a centralized, vetted look at federal spending on states. After a nearly 30-year run, it was put to bed along with other statistical products a few years ago, its final report published in September 2011.

The loss of the report was barely noted in the press at the time, though The Economist lamented its loss in a blog post, wryly noting that “it seems the federal government does not have enough money to find out where its money is spent.” It was crucial to the work of a small set of researchers, academics and journalists, offering a broad view of how federal money is transferred to states.

Federal aid to individuals, 2013 (per capita, current dollars)

(Source: National Priorities Project analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis’s annual state personal income and employment data.)

The pain was so acute for researchers at NPP and Pew that they mobilized to build CFFR replacements both for themselves and others to use.

“Our business is making the federal budget understandable to regular people and one of the most important ways to do that is to put some geography in the mix to show people how money from the federal budget is coming to their states and their congressional districts,” said Becky Sweger, director of data and technology at NPP. “And the other way we can make it relatable to people is to talk about programs and we could do all of that with the CFFR.”

Sweger estimates that she alone spent 800 hours on managing the project, conducting research and then cleaning and wrangling the data that make up the backbone of State Smart. A colleague spent about 400 hours building the website and an application programming interface, a way for outsiders to play with and pull the data. And an intern contributed about 130 hours of time, too. Despite that initial investment of effort, the process of updating the site as new federal data are released should be relatively easy as the site is largely automated, Sweger says.

In addition to covering roughly 50 sets of data — mostly reproduced from federal sources, but some of which are based on NPP’s analyses and calculations of data — State Smart also features stories of the impact of federal spending on individuals to help readers better comprehend how federal money is used.

“Human stories are an important way for people to understand that the budget isn’t some abstract, beltway document—it’s something that impacts every single person in the country,” Sweger said in an e-mail.

The project had two goals to fulfill: show how federal money goes to the states and how states contribute to the federal budget. To show the top-down flow, Sweger’s team focused on four large buckets: grants to state and local governments, aid to individuals, compensation to federal employees in the states and federal contracts in states. With those large categories identified, NPP then set out to identify sources of data to include in its project, and then subsequently extract and clean up that data. Showing the flow of money from states to the federal government was much easier, as that comes largely from taxes paid.

At Pew, a researcher has been at work for more than a year on a similar project, which will offer such data going back at least a decade, just as NPP’s State Smart does. Where there is overlap with the CFFR, roughly 99 percent of the Pew data line up with what that Census product showed, said Anne Stauffer, who directs Pew’s work on the fiscal and policy link between the federal government and the states, including the forthcoming project. Pew plans to release its data along with a report in December and, like NPP, hopes to continue doing so going forward and open it up to others.

“We think it’s so important that this type of analysis of federal spending in the states can be done not just by us, but by other state groups and other researchers,” said Stauffer.

Average federal employee compensation (2014 dollars)

(Source: National Priorities Project analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis’s state annual personal income tables.)

The Consolidated Federal Funds Report that both are seeking to replace was created in 1982 and was largely an aggregated product, a roundup of data produced across several federal agencies. It covered retirement and disability payments, direct payments, grants, procurement contracts, salaries and wages, direct loans, and insurance. It was imperfect, as the data came from different sources using different methods, but it offered a bird’s-eye view of federal spending on the states, researchers say.

“The idea that there was a central clearinghouse where one could go to find this information in one place, in a  digital form, that allowed you to analyze it and manipulate it reduced huge amounts of work,” said Michael Goodman, an associate professor of public policy and director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Its uses varied, but they weren’t limited to theoretical academic analyses—policymakers relied on them, too. The CFFR proved useful in analyzing the local impact of the military’s recent Base Realignment and Closure decisions, Goodman says. He also used the CFFR to analyze the aggregate impact of federal research grants and scientific investments in Massachusetts and New England broadly.

“In my experience, it’s been an important tool in the arsenal of the policy analyst,” he said.

Reporter Adrienne LaFrance was frustrated by the loss of the CFFR, too, while trying to report on the flow of federal funds to Hawaii last year.

“Federal spending figures are so huge that it can be hard to make sense of them without context—like the ability to compare per capita spending from one state to the next and to track how spending changes over time. That sort of context is a key window into government spending, legislative decision making, and legislative influence,” LaFrance, now a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, said in an e-mail.

The CFFR wasn’t dropped without a replacement, however. The federal government created to provide the kinds of data included in the funds report, but what it currently offers is incomplete and complicated, researchers say. Several are hopeful, however, that legislation such as the DATA Act, passed this spring, will provide it with the resources needed to improve. Indeed, some are optimistic it could become a better resource than the CFFR had been, offering even more granular information.

“There’s some terrific, smart people working on its implementation, but we’re still a few years away from seeing anything concrete,” Sweger said. “We want to provide numbers to get people through this dark period of federal spending information.”