Order Code RS20669
Updated November 27, 2002
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Federal Grants to State and Local
Governments: Overview and Characteristics
Analyst in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Each fiscal year, Congress appropriates funds for grants to state and local
governments to further national goals and assist state and local government operations.
Examples of goals include attaining minimum national standards and improving
program effectiveness. The federal government provides grants for numerous
substantive purposes, such as crime prevention, community development, and
transportation. In FY2001, grants to state and local governments totaled $317 billion.
Grants can be classified by the substantive purposes they address. This report,
however, reviews the fundamental characteristics by which they can also be classified.
Examples of grant characteristics include range of eligible activities, objectives, award
process, and administrative requirements. This report will be updated as circumstances
Introduction to Grants-in-Aid
The term “grants-in-aid” typically refers to the assistance that the federal government
provides to state and local governments. Federal assistance comes in many
forms—monetary grants, loans, loan guarantees, insurance, and technical assistance, to
mention a few examples. This report focuses on grants-in-aid to state and local
governments. In FY2001, the federal government spent $317 billion in grants to states
and localities—approximately 17% of total federal outlays.1 Recipient governments use
grants-in-aid to finance state and local programs in such areas as emergency services,
transportation, and income maintenance for individuals.
OMB lists the estimated 2002 amount at $346 billion; Source: U.S. Office of Management and
Budget. Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2003, Historical Tables
(Washington: GPO, 2002), p. 217.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Grants can be classified by the substantive issues they address. This report, however,
reviews other characteristics according to which they can also be classified, such as the
range of eligible activities, award process, accountability provisions, and application and
reporting requirements. The discussion that follows also explains the fundamental
characteristics of categorical grants, block grants, project grants, formula grants, matching
grants, and entitlement grants. (For more information on grants-in-aid, see Federal
Grants to State and Local Governments: Concepts for Legislative Design and Oversight,
CRS Report RL30778.)
Characteristics of Grant Programs
Range of Eligible Activities. Each grant program has either a narrow or broad
range of eligible activities. Congress uses grants with a narrow range of eligible activities
to address specific categories of problems. The resulting grants are known as categorical
grants, or in some instances as project grants. Congress uses grants with a broad range
of eligible activities to offer flexibility in the use of funds. Recipient governments may
use the grants, sometimes called block grants, to fund a broad range of related activities
in areas like mental health or community development. In 1972, Congress also authorized
a program known as general revenue sharing with no limits on the range of activities the
recipient could undertake using the federal funds. Under the revenue sharing program,
which was terminated in 1986, recipient governments could use their own discretion in
spending the funds. With varying ranges of eligible activities, categorical grants, block
grants, and revenue sharing represent three different approaches to providing grants-in-aid
to states and localities.
Objectives. Grant programs can have a variety of objectives. They may be aimed
at helping states attain minimum national standards, improving the overall quality of
programs, or demonstrating new approaches to providing government services. Congress
also uses grants to encourage general social objectives and enhance the capacity of state
and local administrative structures. During the development of a grant program, designers
may state the program’s objectives explicitly or they may leave objectives vague to
broaden political support for the program.2
Applicant Eligibility. The federal government distributes grants-in-aid to state and
local governments. In some programs, the recipient governments act as intermediaries,
awarding the money to other governmental units, nonprofit organizations, and individuals.
Grant programs use different kinds of criteria to determine the pool of eligible applicants,
including type of governmental unit, population, socio-economic data, and evidence of
Award Process. The allocation of funds is typically based on either statutory
formula, agency discretion, or a combination of the two. When Congress establishes a
formula for disbursing funds, the formula determines either the absolute amount of the
grant or the proportion of the appropriated budget authority going to each grant recipient.
When Congress gives award discretion to federal agencies, it may or may not specify the
criteria the Secretary is to use in considering grant applications. The awarding of a grant
Michael D. Reagan, The New Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 6672.
may also be affected by the way state law treats particular jurisdictions, such as
metropolitan counties or special districts, and the capacity of the recipient to fulfill the
Continuation. Grants are either time-limited or renewable. Project grants are
typically time-limited, funding the completion of the project or service, then terminating.
Block, formula, and entitlement grants are often renewable, funding on-going services.
Application Procedure. Some grants require prospective recipients to apply for
assistance, while others do not. Some entitlement grants require only proof of eligibility
and an action plan explaining the intended use of the grant funds. Project grants typically
require state and local governments to compete for funds. These grants have a formal
application that includes a detailed project proposal.
Accountability and Oversight. Grants have varying types of accountability
provisions. Congressional intent to ensure that recipients of grant funds are using the
funds appropriately is a strong incentive for periodic reports from grant recipients and
occasional oversight by congressional committees. Congress also authorizes the U.S.
General Accounting Office to evaluate the use of federal grants by recipient
Administrative Requirements. Grant recipients typically must satisfy a variety
of administrative requirements that are designed to ensure fair and effective use of federal
funds. Some examples of administrative requirements include providing opportunities
for citizen participation, conducting environmental impact assessments, and keeping
accurate financial records.
Profiles of Grant Types
The two types of grants that most often appear in political discussions are categorical
and block grants, but there are several other types of grants, including project, formula,
matching, and entitlement grants. These labels help classify grants based on their most
prominent characteristics, but they are not meant to be rigid definitions. More than one
of these labels can apply to a given grant program. For example, the federal government
distributes Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to states using a
formula, but states redistribute the funds to localities as project grants. The profiles that
follow are meant to give descriptive information on grants, not to create mutually
Categorical Grants. Categorical grants have a narrow range of eligible activities,
permitting funds to be used only for specific, narrowly defined purposes. Funds may be
distributed based on a formula, or at the discretion of agencies. Categorical grants
outnumber block grants in number of programs and in amount of funding. In FY2000,
there were approximately 750 categorical grant programs for state and local governments.4
U.S. General Services Administration, Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, (Washington:
GPO, 2000), pp. XV-XVIII.
This figure is an estimate based on an analysis of the 2000 Catalog of Federal Domestic
Categorical grants remain the most common vehicle for new grant programs. These
grants typically include administrative and reporting requirements that help ensure both
financial and programmatic accountability.5 Examples of categorical grants include
American Battlefield Protection Grants and Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants.6
Project Grants. Project grants are similar to categorical grants, funding specific
projects or the delivery of specific services for fixed periods of time.7 These grants have
the narrowest range of eligible activities of all the grant types. They are designed to
promote proposals within policy areas that Congress defines as problematic.8 Project
grants are sometimes referred to as discretionary grants, referring to the discretionary
authority of federal administrators and agencies in awarding the grants. Generally, the
application is lengthy and there is an audit process after the project is completed.
Examples of project grants are Minority Business Development Grants and Wetlands
Protection Development Grants.
Block Grants. Block grants have a broad range of eligible activities, typically
addressing a general, rather than a specific problem area. For example, a block grant may
address a broad purpose such as public health, rather than more specific problems like
lead poisoning or flu vaccinations. When Congress creates block grants, it often
consolidates a number of existing categorical programs into one larger program. Block
grants are distributed on a formula basis. With their broad range of eligible activities,
block grants give more discretion to recipients in identifying problems and designing
programs to address those problems. They also minimize administrative requirements.
Critics of block grants contend that it is difficult for federal policymakers to ascertain how
funds are being used and whether programs are achieving their intended purpose.
Proponents contend that they provide state and local governments with needed flexibility.
Examples of block grants include the Community Development Block Grant, Social
Services Block Grant, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). (For more
information on block grants, see Block Grants: An Overview, CRS Report RL30818, by
Eugene Boyd and Ben Canada.)
Formula Grants. Formula grants allocate money to state or local governments
according to a distribution formula prescribed by federal statute. Although they are
generally perceived as having a broad range of eligible activities, some have narrow
purposes. Typically, formula grants fund on-going activities, not specific projects. The
distribution formula includes different variables from a particular state, region, or locality.
Some examples of variables used in distribution formulas are the number of low-income
families, number of people with disabilities, and number of youth. The data federal
agencies use for the formulas is gathered by such agencies as the U.S. Census Bureau and
U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Characteristics of Federal Grantin-Aid Programs to State and Local Governments: Grants Funded FY 1993 (Washington: GPO,
1994), pp. iii, 1-2.
All grant examples in this report are taken from the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, p. IX.
David G. Bauer, The “How To” Grants Manual: Successful Grantseeking Techniques for
Obtaining Public and Private Grants (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1999), p. 58.
the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The grant funds typically pass through an intermediary,
such as a state or local government, before reaching the recipient. After receiving the
formula grant, the intermediary may redistribute the funds to recipients on a project or
formula basis.9 Examples of formula grants include the Bioterrorism Hospital
Preparedness Program and Block Grants for Treatment and Prevention of Substance
Abuse (also known as the Prevention and Treatment Block Grant).
Matching Grants. Matching grants require the recipient to contribute either cash,
services, or facilities to match a percentage of the grant. Congress uses matching grants
to encourage the recipient to efficiently manage the federally aided program. ACIR
concluded that grants with no matching requirement or a low matching requirement
provide a strong incentive for eligible recipients to participate in a program, while grants
with high matching requirements discourage eligible recipients from participating.10 The
recipient’s matching requirement may be specified by law and may increase over time.
For example, an 8-year grant may cover 90% of a project the first and second years, but
decrease by 5% each subsequent year. Grants may have a maintenance-of-effort provision
that requires the recipient to maintain a specified level of financial effort in an area in
order to receive federal funds. This requirement insures that federal funds only
supplement, not supplant, the level of recipient’s funds.11 The Block Grant for
Community Mental Health Services is an example of a program with a maintenance of
Effort requirement. Examples of matching grants are the Economic Adjustment Grant,
which generally funds 50% of economic recovery projects; and the Federal-Aid Highway
Program, which funds up to 90% of interstate projects.
Entitlement Grants. Entitlement grants require the payment of benefits to any
person or governmental unit that meets the eligibility requirements established by law.
These grants typically aim to help individuals with low income, economically depressed
or disaster-stricken communities, and similar recipients. Statutory benefit levels and the
number of qualified recipients generally determine the funding amounts for these
programs.12 Congress can distribute entitlement funds through automatic payments to any
qualified recipient, such as with Social Security Disability Insurance.
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance offers a profile on nearly every federal
grant program, including the objectives, administering agency, uses and restrictions,
application and award process, and contact information. The General Services
Administration publishes the CFDA on an annual basis. The CFDA website is
Ibid., p. 59.
U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Summary and Concluding
Observations, The Intergovernmental Grant System: An Assessment and Proposed Policies
(Washington: 1978), pp. 18-19.
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, p. XVII.
CRS Report 96-70, Entitlement Spending, by Dawn Nuschler and Richard Rimkunas, pp. 1-2.
This CRS report classifies grants into general types, such as categorical or block
grants. This classification provides readers a framework for understanding the basic
characteristics and differences between grant programs. It complements the CFDA
classification system, which is based on the type of aid given. The CFDA recognizes
seven types of financial assistance and eight types of nonfinancial assistance, but
identifies nearly all federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments as either project
or formula grants.
Related CRS Products
Policy Issues Related to Grants.
Block Grants: An Overview, CRS Report RL30818, by Eugene Boyd and Ben Canada.
Federal Grants to State and Local Governments: Concepts for Legislative Design and
Oversight, CRS Report RL30778, by Ben Canada.
Federal Grants to State and Local Governments: A Brief History, CRS Report RL30705,
by Ben Canada.
Population Factors Used in Federal Assistance Programs, CRS Report RL30358, by
James R. Riehl.
Waivers and the Grants-in-Aid System, CRS Report RS20872, by Ben Canada.
Grants Work in Congressional Offices.
CRS Website for Grants Information:
CRS Website for Tracking Distribution of Federal funds:
Grants Work in a Congressional Office, CRS Report 97-220, by Merete Gerli.
Grants Information for Constituents, CRS Report RS20514, by Merete Gerli.
Grants and Foundation Support: Information on Government and Private Funding,
CRS Info Pack IP050G.
Federal Funds: Tracking Their Geographic Distribution, CRS Report 98-79C, by
James R. Riehl, 2000.