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Picture this: You’ve gotten off the interstate highway, and are trying to get to your destination of choice. Your car runs into a big pothole, and you feel the nauseating sensation that accompanies one of your tires slowly flattening. Who should you be annoyed at for the lack of reasonable maintenance? The town? The county? The state? Bet a nickel that you – like we – rarely have any idea who’s responsible for the roads you’re using.

Or maybe the roads are just filthy. What governmental entity has let the debris gather? Who knows? But shouldn’t you care about this kind of thing, especially when it comes time to vote for county commissioners, mayors or governors?

Roads are a particularly good example of a phenomenon that we think stands in the way of the citizenry’s ability to deal with, or even have trust in, government: On all sorts of levels, people simply don’t know what government does what, with just a handful of exceptions. We don’t believe, for example, anyone is confused enough to think that Minneapolis has the capacity to send troops overseas.

Then there are the social services government provides. We’ve had any number of casual conversations with friends, who don’t work in government, and believe that Medicaid is entirely paid for by the federal government. But, of course, it’s shared by states and the feds, and in New York City, by the city, too. (For that matter many people don't even understand the difference between Medicaid and federally supported Medicare.) But if you don’t know who’s paying the bills, how can you possibly think through the issues involved with American health care, which pop up in the press relentlessly.

Education is another big one. While the U.S. Department of Education is a hugely important federal agency, it provides fewer than 10% of the dollars that actually go to education. Most of the rest comes from states and localities, with states taking the lion’s share of that. And of course, the state/local split varies a great deal depending on where you live.

Then there are jails and prisons. The former are generally under the auspices of counties, and the latter are run by the states.

The level of government that tends to suffer most from this confusion are the counties. Not only do are they frequently overlooked by individuals, even the federal government sometimes forget that they even exist. As we wrote in a white paper for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Though counties represent the level of government that tends to get the least attention, they have historically served as the cornerstones of health policies, including immunizations that keep diseases like diphtheria, pertussis, and measles at bay. Yet when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a playbook to guide vaccination distribution in October of 2020, counties barely received a mention."

So here we have a modest proposal. Wouldn’t it be cool if any visible sign of government work were labeled with the origin of its funding? So, the snow truck would have a sign on the side saying, “Your streets are being kept clear through city tax dollars.” Or, “this jail is making life safer for you, courtesy of your county.” We know that’ll never happen. But we like the idea. Do you?


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