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First In Our Hearts but Not in Our Pocket Books: Trends in Local Governmental Financing for Parks and Recreation from 2004 to 2014

Austin G. Barrett, Nicholas A. Pitas, Andrew J. Mowen


This paper is a replication of a 2006 analysis conducted by Kaczynski and Crompton assessing expenditures for local park and recreation services in the United States relative to other local public services. Whereas the earlier analysis compared data from the period of 1990 to 2003, this paper covers 2004 to 2014. The original analysis was conducted during a period of economic growth in the United States while the housing crisis, Great Recession, and subsequent economic recovery all occurred during the more recent period. This study addresses the question of how funding for parks and recreation fared during times of economic hardship relative to other governmental services. Data was derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s State and Local Government Finances survey of all 90,000+ units of local government in years ending in “2” or “7,” as well as a smaller sample of state and local governments collected during the intervening years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016a). From 2004 to 2014, parks and recreation accounted for between 2.22% –2.55% of total expenditures. Of the 10 competitive services analyzed, only corrections and libraries received a lower percentage of annual expenditures during this period. Unlike during the original period however, expenditures for parks and recreation decreased by 7.15% (compared to an increase of 63.25% from 1989–1990 to 2002–2003). Although allocations to parks and recreation grew substantially from 2003–2004 to 2008–2009 (14.65%), growth was negative for the remaining years of analysis. This ranked parks and recreation seventh among the ten services analyzed in terms of cumulative percentage increase in total expenditures. Although expenditures declined across most of the individual governmental services from 2010–2013, parks and recreation experienced the highest percentage decrease in expenditures during this period (-21.22%). These results contrast sharply with Kaczynski and Crompton’s earlier analysis and suggest that the landscape has changed in terms of budget priorities, with parks and recreation not receiving prior levels of investment. While public awareness of the benefits of parks and recreation has grown (Mowen, Graefe, Barrett, Roth, & Godbey, 2016), this has not translated into funding support or recovery in the face of tough economic times. While expenditures are only one measure of support, a potential way for parks and recreation to adapt to their current financial reality is to initiate or intensify their repositioning messages centered on issues/problems that received priority even during years of economic recession. Other compelling strategies for parks and recreation include becoming more ingrained with the ongoing social/political discourse in their community, as well as pursuing alternative financing mechanisms beyond the tax-support model such as public/private partnerships.

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Local government; parks and recreation; repositioning; funding; replication

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