Just Thinking

Gov’t Spending on Welfare Soon Will Top Education

by Richard Gilman

Programs to help the needy are about to supplant education as the biggest expense of government in Arizona.

This turn of events, perhaps the most notable trend in government spending in Arizona over the past 25 years, illustrates the pressures both for and against the initiative that voters are being asked to approve this fall to preserve some of the funding for education.

In 1985, more than 30 cents of every dollar spent in Arizona by all levels of government – federal, state, and local – went to funding all levels of education.  Only 10 cents of that dollar was spent on safety-net programs.

By 2010, education funding had slowly slipped to just over 25 cents of the dollar.  Meanwhile, spending on social services more than doubled to 22 cents and was still rising.

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony Bustos

For those who believe that education is the one path by which impoverished children can lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty, funding is getting turned upside down and backward. The state is headed toward shelling out more on the repercussions of poverty than on trying to prevent it in the first place.

Arizona is not alone. Three states already spend more on social services than education. Fifteen or so others are on the verge.

That juncture may be reached in Arizona this year, if recent trends have held. Confirmation of such, however, will not be available for a few years due to the lag times by the U.S. Census Bureau in compiling the raw numbers that are the basis of this analysis by Thinking Arizona. The latest available figures are for 2010.

The trend lines though are clear.  An apples-to-apples comparison, done by adjusting past figures for inflation and the state’s explosive population growth, shows where the sands have shifted over the past 25 years.

Money spent on some activities such as for transportation and utilities has stayed remarkably constant.  For instance, the $777 per capita it took to provide utilities in 2010 was barely different from the $802, stated in today’s dollars, that it took in 1985.  The overall spending pattern.

A few expenses, education included, edged upward.   Education spending rose from $1,786 per capita in 1985 to a peak of $2,354 in 2008.  Then in the face of the economic downturn, budget-makers whacked it back to $2,138 in 2010.

Three expenses skyrocketed.  Even after adjusting for inflation and population growth, spending on public safety nearly doubled.  The cost of providing benefits for government employees nearly quadrupled.  And in terms of sheer dollars, the elephant in the room is social services.  Costs skyrocketed three-fold from $597 per capita in 1985 to $1,837 in 2010.

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony Bustos

The increase is driven as much by the trends in health care as by poverty.  While the Census Bureau summarizes the category as “social services and income maintenance,” the biggest cost component is the state’s version of Medicaid, otherwise known as the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

Despite efforts to tamp down those expenses, the costs of public assistance continued to escalate even as overall government spending barely increased in 2009 and then dropped slightly in 2010.

Voters restored some of the cuts in education by approving in 2010 a temporary increase of one percentage point in the state sales tax.  They will decide this fall on another ballot measure – Proposition 204 – whether to make that increase a permanent one

Lawmakers are among the opponents.  With more and more air being sucked out of the system by social services, they are even more loathe to have their hands tied in determining how to spend what’s left.  That’s just what proponents of the proposition fear in a state that is as parsimonious as any.

Arizona’s per capita spending by government in 2010 continued to rank among the lowest in the country, according to the most recent calculations of Thinking Arizona.  Spending by the state ranked 45th, spending by local government ranked 26th, the total of the two ranked 46th.   See updated figures.

The fact that social services is about to overtake education does not mean Arizona is throwing money at welfare.  The state’s spending ranked only 40th in that regard.

It’s just that Arizona is even more frugal when it comes to education.  The state’s per capita spending ranks 46th. And when it comes specifically to elementary and secondary education, only Tennessee spends less.


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  1. MLH on said:

    Here’s my question. Why have our elected officials failed to protect funds (to the tune of $700+ million) for public education but found funding for private prisons? The state ended its budget year with a surplus 3x larger than anticipated. The governor and members of our state legislature refuse to restore funds to K-12 schools and our state universities when there has been a surplus.

    According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the state legislature and governor cut $767 million to the Department of Education along with $279 million to the School Facilities Board from FY 2008 through the current fiscal year. Lawmakers permanently eliminated once funded full-day kindergarten in FY 2011.

    In addition, the current temporary sales tax expires May 2013, a loss of $610 million in school funding beginning August 2013. Without funding, there will be less teachers and even larger class sizes.

    We are tired of politicians who say they support education but their voting records show otherwise.

    Our little ones cannot vote, and for their sake, we need to protect education funding for their generation and future generations. Yes on Prop 204.

  2. Steve Muratore on said:

    I suspect that use of only safety net programs as a measure of “shelling out more on the repercussions of poverty than on trying to prevent it in the first place…” perhaps understates the problem. Public safety and corrections/prisons/jail costs likely have some correlation in there somewhere.

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