Since the recovery officially began, the number of local government jobs has fallen by 3 percent, while the private sector has actually been able to add jobs—4.3 million, to be exact. And it’s worth comparing those numbers to recent recessions to get the full effect of just how bad, and abnormal, this trend is. Romney is at least partly right in that the private sector isn't doing as well as it could be. At this point in the recessions experienced in 1992 and 2003, it had added 5 million and 4.5 million jobs, respectively.
But the public sector looks far, far worse now than it did then. As Ben Polak and Peter K. Schott write in the New York Times today, “In the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not.” Local government employment actually grew in the past two recessions by 7.7 percent and 5.2 percent for each respective period. This time around, it's hemorrhaging jobs.
So it seems that while both candidates’ exaggerations were a bit off—Obama misspoke in suggesting that the private sector is completely shielded from pain—he gets closer to the heart of the problem than Romney. The huge fall in public sector employment really is dragging down the economy.
Here's a visual representation of the meager decline in local government employment:
|Source: Economix blog|
In fact, from a historical perspective it seems that local government employment remains at elevated levels. Eye-balling this graph, it appears that in 1967 the ratio of citizens to local government employees was 331:1 (198,712,056 divided by 600,000). In 1974 it was 265:1 (211,908,788 divided by 800,000). In 1986 it was 1:240 (240 million divided by 1 million). And in 1996 it was 225:1 (269.4 million divided by 1.2 million). Today it's 223:1 (311.6 million divided by 1.4 million).
The massive job loss we’ve been experiencing in the public sector is no random coincidence or unfortunate side effect. It is part of an ideological battle waged by ultra conservatives who were swept into power in the 2010 elections. Republicans seized control of eleven states, and of those, five were at the top of the list for public sector job loss. Only seven states lost more than 2.5 percent of their government workforce from December 2010 to December 2011, and those five newly Republican states were among them. All others fared far better: they lost an average of .5 percent of their government employees.
This means that the eleven states that went red two years ago were responsible for 40 percent of these public sector job losses in 2011. If we add in Texas, a massive red state, we can pinpoint the source of 70 percent of those losses. And these losses were the result of deliberate decisions: even in the face of tight budget constraints, many of these states cut taxes for corporations and top earners while slimming down the public payrolls. It was part and parcel of a new agenda that came in with Tea Party–esque Republican legislators.
|TX unemployment: 6.9%. US: 8.2%|