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The Long-Term Debt Burdens of America’s 100 Largest Cities, 1996-2012

How to Use This Visualization

This visualization illustrates the long-term debt among the Top 100 largest cities in the U.S. from 1996 to 2012. To use this visual, simply adjust the year and the chart will show the long-term debt both in total (y-axis) and in per capita terms (color). The bar chart towards the bottom will reflect the 10 cities with the highest debt per capita for that year.

About This Visualization

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the end of 2012, local governments in the United States had accumulated nearly $1.8 trillion dollars of unpaid debt. Approximately 98% of the local government debt consisted of long-term obligations, which are infrastructure costs. In other words, while enjoying the public services offered by their local governments, the average American was indebted $5,723 for services such as city parks, sewer systems, traffic signals, and police.

Long-term debt per capita is a common ratio to measure how much it costs for each person to benefit from certain infrastructure improvements. Generally, large cities like New York City and Chicago have more debt due to larger populations and also because residents in the surrounding areas use many of these services (called “free-rider” benefits) without contributing to city revenues.

However, not all cities with the largest long-term debt per capita figures are large metropolises. With a population of 380,000, Wichita, Kansas had the 8th highest amount of long-term debt per capita in 2012, with every resident owing an average of $9,014. This number is 57% higher than the national average and almost 4 times higher than the state average. In the coming years, as cities continue to grow, they will have to monitor their debt carefully to balance their budgets while working to provide quality public services.

Data Sources

Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau. 2012 Census of Governments: State and Local Finances.

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