Acton Institute Powerblog

Which U.S. States are the Most Corrupt?

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briberyThere’s an old saying that corruption is authority plus monopoly minus transparency. That combination makes state-level governments especially prone to the temptations of corruption.

A new study in Public Administration Review, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” looks at the impact of government corruption on states’ expenditures. Defining corruption as the “misuse of public office for private gain,” the authors of the paper note that public and private corruption can have a range of negative effects, including lower-quality work, reduced economic productivity, and increased poverty.

According to Leighton Walter Kille, the researchers explored two possible theories: First, higher levels of corruption should cause states’ spending levels to be higher than they would be otherwise. Second, corruption would distort states’ spending priorities in ways that favor bribes from private firms and others. Some of the findings include:

• Corruption and elevated state expenditures were found to be positively correlated. Over the period studied, if the 10 most corrupt states had been at the average level of corruption, they could have reduced their annual expenditures by $1,308 per capita, or 5.2% of the mean per-capita expenditure.

• More-corrupt states tend to spend more on areas that are fertile ground for practices most conducive to corrupt practices such as bribery, kickbacks, extortion, nepotism and patronage. These include construction and highway projects, salaries and wages, borrowing, correction and police protection.

• Construction projects find particular favor because they present a wealth of corruption opportunities: “First, construction involves large, complex, nonstandard activities, so the quality of construction can be very hard to assess. Second, domestic and international construction industries are dominated by a few monopolistic firms. Third, the industry is closely linked to the government. Governments have major roles as ‘clients, regulators, and owners’ of construction companies. It is very common to bribe government officials to gain or alter contracts and to circumvent regulations related to construction.”

According to the study, the top 10 most corrupt states are:

  1. Mississippi
  2. Louisiana
  3. Tennessee
  4. Illinois
  5. Pennsylvania
  6. Alabama
  7. Alaska
  8. South Dakota
  9. Kentucky
  10. Florida

“The results of this article suggest that preventing public officials’ corruption and restraining spending induced by public corruption should accompany other efforts at fiscal constraint,” the researchers conclude. “Increases in states’ expenditures on capital, construction, highways and borrowing are not problematic in themselves. . . . However, policy makers should pay close attention that public resources are not used for private gains of the few but rather distributed effectively and fairly.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • The_Repentant_Curmudgeon

    Hmm. I’m skeptical of this list for a couple reasons:

    1. It does not square with surveys of least trusted states, and no state is even close to Illinois on that list.

    2. It does not square with surveys of states that are most in the red. There doesn’t have to be a correlation, but the trust surveys and the most in the red survey do largely square with one another.

    3. I just read their policy positions. They advocate more opportunities for federal workers to attend non-government conferences. More opportunity for pay raises by government employees. More government careers for students graduating from public policy schools (and nearly all the staff seem to teach at these schools).

    4. Recent surveys about states whose governments were least trusted, taxed highest, or were most in the red ALL had blue states heavily dominating the worst of the lot. This survey has red states clearly dominating the worst of the lot.

    I add all this up, and now I’m far more skeptical of this report than when I started writing this comment.

    • Non Compliant

      1. Corruption doesn’t necessarily cause distrust… Eventually it can if people find out about corruption. This study seems to be based on evidence of corruption (i.e. shady happenings, kickbacks etc.), not based on a “feeling” of trust or distrust.

      2. You’re right when you say there doesn’t have to be a correlation between corruption and states in debt. Because there may not be one. This just looks at how much money is going under the table, which doesn’t have to mean not profitable.

      3. Policies don’t determine whether or not a government is trustworthy, corrupt, or good. Its actions determine that.

      4. Again, it’s not about trust, it’s about corruption. Trust is a perception, corruption is a fact.

      All this and i still find their findings to be exactly what they reported based on their period of study and the states they studied….

  • Bill Lenner

    I love how the uneducated cram into comments on this report that is based on a well founded study. Trolls you give people so much amusement. Here’s the original report I believe this writer is basing his on. >> Get yourself into an associate society so you can read it.