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In Tracking Stimulus Spending at Federal Agencies, No Single Number Will Do

 We’ve updated our Stimulus Progress Bar, which tracks the flow of stimulus dollars through each federal agency. As our interactive chart shows, federal agencies have now spent nearly $111 billion, or about 19 percent of the $580 billion allowed to them under the Recovery Act. (The other  $212 billion of the stimulus  is tax relief.)

But it would be a mistake to focus only on how much money each agency has actually spent. Another important number to watch is what we call the money "in process." Those are funds that a federal agency has decided to spend on a certain project (agencies often call this money "obligated," "committed" or "awarded"), but for which the Treasury Department hasn’t yet cut a check.

Some federal agencies argue that the amount of money in process is the best way to measure their progress on spending stimulus dollars, rather than looking at how much they’ve actually paid out.

Take the Department of Education. As you can see from the Stimulus Progress Bar, the department has spent nearly $21 billion, or about a fifth of its  total available funding of $98 billion. However, the department has awarded over $67 billion — mostly to state agencies.

Sandra Abrevaya, a Department of Education spokeswoman, says the $67 billion figure better captures the department’s performance. She says that once money has been awarded by the department to a specific state, it’s up to the  state when to spend it.

"When states receive the award, it is available for them to spend, but the funds are still in the U.S. Treasury," Abrevaya told us in an e-mail.  

Education isn’t the only department whose stimulus spending hinges on the actions of states or organizations further down the line. The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency both depend, to varying degrees, on state agencies to spend their stimulus awards, while other agencies depend on their own partners, from cities to contractors to nonprofit groups.

You can see that dynamic on our chart. The Department of Transportation has obligated 61 percent of its $48 billion in stimulus money, but just $3.6 billion — less than 8 percent — has been paid out. The National Endowment for the Arts has obligated 99.5 percent of its $50 million, but has paid out just $8.4 million, or 17 percent, as recipients go about spending their grants. The EPA may offer the most extreme example: Despite obligating nearly 99 percent of its $7.2 billion, the agency has paid out just $193 million — less than 3 percent.

But there’s still an important reason to look at how much money has actually been spent by each agency: The impact on the economy. An obligated dollar may indicate how fast federal agencies work, and it may spur hiring or job retention with companies that get government contracts. But the dollars that best create jobs and spur consuming spending are the dollars that actually enter the economy, through paychecks or payment for supplies and other goods.

As a result, the amount of stimulus money that has actually been paid out remains an important number to watch. It just isn’t the only number.