A Comparison of Two Data Sets Used to Measure Expenditure Trends for Local Public Park and Recreation Services





Local Government, public park and recreation, expenditure, convergent validity


Six studies published between 1978 and 2017 used data from the Census Bureau’s annual publication, Government Finances, to identify trends in local park and recreation expenditures. This paper evaluates the validity of the Government Finances data and conclusions of analyses drawn from it by comparing annual data on park and recreation expenditures collected annually by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) from 2008 through 2017 from the same agencies in the same years published in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Government Finances.Results revealed several key discrepancies between the datasets. First, the Government Finances average total, operating, and capital expenditures for the 100 cities were substantially higher than those reported by TPL. Second, the TPL data showed a gradual and incremental decrease in total expenditures over the decade, whereas the Government Finances data showed a substantial increase in total spending, especially after 2012. Third, the declines in the TPL data in total and operational spending from 2008 to 2009, which marked the onset of the Great Recession were 11.31% and 17.69%, respectively, whereas the Government Finances data showed increases of 1.05% and 5.96%, respectively. Fourth, the Government Finances data showed increases from 2008 to 2016 of 22% in total spending and 6% in operational spending, suggesting park and recreation agencies had fully recovered from the Great Recession, but the TPL data showed declines of 20% and 16% in those expenditures, respectively. Fifth, averages masked substantial variations among cities, as there were dramatic differences in expenditures in the two data sets for many individual municipalities. Our analyses confirmed that concerns relating to the Government Finances dataset were legitimate. Applying those data to monitor trends in expenditures of “mainline” park and recreation agencies is inappropriate and is likely to mislead rather than inform. For the Government Finances data to have utility, the Census Bureau should divide them into “core” and “non-core” services. If that is not done, then we recommend that state associations use the TPL definitions and questionnaire to collect primary information about park and recreation expenditures either annually or biennially to improve monitoring accuracy and inform policy and decision-making. Subscribe to JPRA





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