City Police Expenditure Compared to Public Welfare Expenditure Over the Last 50 Years


What’s the best way to treat a heart attack? It’s a bit of a trick question. The best way to treat a heart attack is to prevent one by following the best-known steps to mitigate the health factors that lead to a heart attack. A healthy diet and regular exercise are both preferred and lower risk than emergency procedures that occur once the attack has set in. This logic tracks for more than just cardiology.

The summer of 2020 brought with it a new wave of civil rights protests aimed at an effort to defund police departments across the United States. The movement was brought on by a surge of highly-publicized extrajudicial executions of people of color at the hands of law enforcement officials. The protests swept the nation opening a new dialogue about bloated police budgets and how those dollars are spent. As the dollar amounts pumped into city police budgets rise and rise, there are those who would point to the numbers as an effort to decrease crime. Yet, since the 1990s, as rates of violent crime have continued to fall, police budgets have continued to rise. Our city budget priorities seem to be focused on treatment, rather than mitigation. You don’t stop crime by responding to it. You stop crime by addressing the factors that contribute to crime, such as lack of financial opportunity and mental health resources.

In this infographic, I tracked the city budget expenditures in the categories of “police protection” and “welfare expenditure” over the last 50 years (1977-2017) in dollars per capita for the four largest U.S. cities and Boston, where I go to grad school. By placing these numbers on the same chart and using a measurement (dollars per capita) that controls for the varying sizes and budgets of the selected cities, we can quantify each city’s approach by treatment vs. mitigation.

There are a few noteworthy statistics worth mentioning that I chose not to include in this data set. The first is correctional expenditure — also at a steep rise (nearly $81 billion in 2017) — includes the building and operation of jails and prisons. I excluded this measurement because while policing budgets are controlled at a city and state level, many correctional institutions that operate at a federal level would be left out of these numbers, and because I used data from some of the largest cities in the U.S., it would also not include correctional expenditure in rural areas where most correctional facilities are located. The second data not included on the mitigation and prevention side of the equation is dollars per capita spent on primary and secondary education. Alongside financial support for struggling communities, the promise of education is one of the best mitigators of future crime. While these numbers are higher than both police and welfare expenditure at a level significant enough to distort the chart, data also shows that the numbers have been on a downward trend over the last 50 years while policing and correctional numbers continue to rise.

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